Whether aboard leisure yachts or deep-sea cargo vessels, AI-powered navigational assistance and autonomy help captains sail off into the sunset or simply moor in a scratch-free port.
At the CES technology show in Las Vegas, boat builders are putting a big focus on technologies and artificial intelligence that make it easier for seasoned yachtsmen and sailors to head out to sea for the weekend.
“On the water, there are winds, currents, sometimes waves, the boat doesn’t stay in place, you always have to compensate,” said Johan Enden, head of marine business at Sweden’s Volvo Penta.
For more than ten years, the company’s boats have helped sailors maneuver with a simple joystick that keeps the ship in position or nudges it sharply to the right or left.
Volvo Penta unveiled a prototype in 2018 that was able to let a boat dock on its own, but customers weren’t ready to park their ships with the click of a button, Endeen said.
Instead, the company developed a mooring assistance system that “gives the captain a certain level of control” when the boat is moored, a moment that “remains one of the most stressful in sailing”.
Overall, the idea is to improve “safety, comfort and relaxation” and ultimately make boating more accessible, he said.
A prototype of the boat, produced by the American company Brunswick, provides the best path to enter the port, avoid collisions, find available places to dock a boat, and do the job without human intervention.
Another software program, offered by Hyundai’s Avikus, can help maximize your fun at sea.
One setup will ensure that the boat is in the perfect sunbathing position or will find the best spot to catch the sunset and get there in time to see it.
The goal, according to company CEO Carl Johansson, is fuel economy, safety, and “peace of mind.”
For merchant mariners, independent sailing is in the testing phase.
In Norway, an autonomous electric freighter has been transporting fertilizer from a factory to a port since last year, with the aim of reducing truck traffic.
While in Japan, a full-size motorized ferry has been running between two islands since last year, although there is no crew on board for the time being.
If the entire reality of ships without human seafarers remains out of reach, several navigation tools can provide valuable assistance, in ports or in calculating the best route according to the weather.
Computer-guided flight “provides a more reliable mode of transportation,” said John Cross of Memorial University in Canada.
HD Hyundai, which revealed at CES a project to collect and analyze shipping data, said its software will slow a ship’s speed if the destination port is crowded, reducing fuel consumption.
Autonomy tools can also be useful in aiding maintenance by monitoring the condition of motors or propellers.
John Cross said the companies long-term goal is to “reduce crew”. They may see it as a way to save money, but also to reduce risks as accidents on board are still frequent.
It is also a way to deal with the aging of professional seafarers and the difficulties of recruitment.
The growth of work in autonomous navigation has been aided by the recent decision of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to work on setting the rules, said Rudi Nigenborn of Delft University in the Netherlands.
It is still forbidden to operate an autonomous boat in international waters and no new regulations are expected before 2028.
Technologies also need to be improved to enhance safety, reduce energy consumption, and identify the best sensors and what to do if they fail, Nigenborn said.
In any case, he said, “there will always be a human being somewhere.” Whether it’s a sailor following an on-board computer or a ground supervisor managing several boats.