No Captain, No Problem: Self-Driving Boats

I interviewed Thiru Vikram, Founder and CEO of Buffalo Automation Group (BAG). His company developed self-driving technology for the recreational boating industry. This feature was originally published by Great Lakes Boating Magazine in July 2016. To read the article on the GLB website, use this link:

By Jay Bouchard

The driverless boat—a vessel navigating on its own, independent of any crew or captain—has existed in folklore for hundreds of years. Ghost ships, like the infamous Flying Dutchman, have long been part of nautical legend.

And until now, the driverless boat has existed only in such eerie fables.

Over the past two years, however, a team of undergraduate researchers and entrepreneurs at the University of Buffalo, operating as the Buffalo Automation Group (BAG), has been developing “AutoMate”—a product that looks to make driverless technology a reality for recreational boaters.

The driverless technology was born from a university research project on a robotic boat, according to Thiru Vikram, founder and CEO of BAG.

“I grew up making robots, and people were always talking about self-driving cars and drones,” Vikram says. “I thought the easiest thing to do would be to make a boat self-driving because you don’t have to deal with some of the challenges that you have on the road.”

Vikram began developing the technology two years ago during his sophomore year at the University of Buffalo. He teamed up with classmates Alex Zhitelzeyf and Emilie Reynolds, and their research project went so well that they took their work beyond the classroom.

“The prototype we developed worked pretty well,” Vikram says. “We thought it might be a fruitful company, so we started Buffalo Automation Group.”

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(L-R) Thiru Vikram, Emilie Reynolds, and Alex Zhitelzeyf. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Automation Group.

The technology

AutoMate technology can be fitted to existing boats and features a forward-facing camera that identifies obstacles in front of the boat. Furthermore, 3G broadband radar provides a 360-degree view of all obstacles around the vessel. According to Vikram, this is not standard pulse radar because it allows boaters to see obstacles within five feet of the boat and can extend out 24 nautical miles.

The product also features a Class B AIS (Automatic Identification System) unit, a depth finder, and a standard general-purpose computer that builds a map for the surrounding environment. The computer instructs micro-controllers, which control the motors and the steering of the boat. Vikram says the technology is designed for both inboard and outboard propulsion systems.

The computer has preloaded maps, so the radar can identify stationary obstacles. But the computer also compares how radar images are moving in respect to each other and in respect to the boat. This enables AutoMate to identify moving objects, Vikram noted.

AutoMate allows boaters to input a destination and as the boat navigates, the computer will notify the captain of weather updates. The steering and throttle will automatically adjust for rough water.

If there is any malfunction with the software, an alarm will sound notifying anyone on board. If any of the sensors fail or if the radar isn’t giving out a picture, the autopilot will turn off, the alarm will sound, and the boat will stop.

“As long as our technology works, boaters can relax and don’t have to worry about navigation,” Vikram says.

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The BAG team prepares to launch the AutoMate prototype last summer in Buffalo, NY

Current status

In its present state, the Automate technology is designed for recreational boaters who take long trips and don’t necessarily want to keep constant watch over their vessels. For this reason, the BAG team expects AutoMate to be used widely on the Great Lakes.

“Larger bodies of water like the Great Lakes hold the biggest promise because that’s where you have these long distances where people don’t want to [constantly] pay attention,” Vikram says. “And we’ll start in the Great Lakes because we’re in Buffalo.”

In August 2015, the BAG team spent a month testing AutoMate on a motorized catamaran in Buffalo, and the product worked as designed, according to Vikram.

This summer marks the pinnacle moment in AutoMate’s commercial evolution. The BAG team is testing AutoMate on an 18-foot Chaparral fish and ski boat. If the testing is successful and boaters like the product, Vikram and his team will be one step closer to selling AutoMate commercially.

“We know the product works,” Vikram says. “So this summer we’re pretty much making sure boaters like it.” Depending on feedback, he says, BAG may start selling AutoMate in September or October.

Although Vikram is positive the technology will work, some boaters are skeptical. “Most people have a really hard time believing it actually works right,” Vikram said. “So this summer we want to get people on the boat and prove that it actually works. Once we prove that it works, I think people might start ordering before [AutoMate] is on the market.”

But before BAG can start selling its product, the team will have to acquire approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, whose approval requires an extensive application and review process. Vikram said they are working toward approval and hope to be cleared before the end of the summer.

When the USCG was asked to comment on AutoMate and similar driverless watercraft products, a spokesman said that USCG “has not evaluated these watercraft and at this time cannot provide any type of comment about them.”

The future

If AutoMate receives USCG approval, BAG expects to make it commercially available by October 2016. Vikram says BAG hopes to market the product at $7,000 for smaller, recreational boats, though that figure is subject to change. “It depends upon the class of boats we’re selling to,” he says. “Maybe for larger boats we’ll add some features and it might be more expensive.”

While BAG is testing the product initially on smaller (18-foot) ski boats, the team hopes to eventually sell to larger 40- to 60-foot yachts. “We feel these customers will be easily able to afford our product,” Vikram says.

The product will be sold directly by BAG and boat dealers will install AutoMate under the close coordination of the BAG team.

Though the product hasn’t hit the market yet, its genesis has garnered varying opinions from industry professionals. Tim Gallagher, sales and marketing manager at Marine Technology Incorporated, said AutoMate is the first he’s heard of self-driving technology in the recreational boating world. However, he said he thinks this technology is better suited for military use than for recreational boating.

“For military use, I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “It doesn’t put any lives at risk.”

But in the recreational and performance boat industry, he doubted that there would be a big market for such technology. “Everybody buys a boat to go drive it, they want to enjoy driving themselves,” he says.

He noted that for people who take longer cruises, the technology might be more applicable. But for the general boater who enjoys driving his or her boat, Gallagher said he doesn’t expect there to be significant market interest.

Although AutoMate is the first driverless boat technology designed for recreational boaters, similar technology has been used by the U.S. and other militaries. In May, the Pentagon unveiled a self-driving 132-foot ship, the Sea Hunter, that is able to travel up to 10,000 nautical miles on its own, searching for underwater mines and submarines. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will test this ship over the next two years in San Diego.

Last October, defense company BAE Systems tested self-driving boat technology that can be fitted to smaller Rigid Inflatable Boats. The Royal British Navy is already employing this technology.

But for the time being, Buffalo Automation Group is developing the forerunning self-driving-boat technology in the Great Lakes and if all goes to plan, the product will debut commercially in only a few months

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