Inside the race to make self-mooring boats a reality
Sixteen years later VolvoPenta introduces its first joystick boat control, the yachting world is considering its next step towards autonomous piloting with assisted docking systems. But don’t let go of the wheel just yet: the ability to automatically glide your boat around while you and your guests sip cocktails on the foredeck could take another 5 or even 10 years.
“It’s coming”, Anders Thorin, VOLVO Penta product manager for marine electronics, insisted to me in 2018 during a Volvo Ocean Race stopover in Gothenburg, Sweden. He was at the helm of a fully self-mooring Volvo-powered Azimut as he glided effortlessly between two priceless racing boats. This system, despite its flawless demonstration, wasn’t quite ready for prime time, but last year a slimmed down version of Assisted Docking debuted as an option on the Volvo. Inboard performance system (IPS), using a combination of IPS and GPS-based Dynamic Positioning System data as well as information from steering, transmission, bow thruster and engine controls.
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The system neutralizes wind, tide and current, making docking in tight, windy quarters less of a disaster (and giving first-time captains the kind of confidence that usually only develops after years of embarrassing mishaps ). Essentially, joystick control keeps the boat moving, straight or sideways, without being jostled. When your hand comes off the joystick, the boat stops immediately rather than sliding into trouble; a side push button keeps it pinned against the dock without having to tie it down.
Courtesy of Volva Penta
“It’s just like how automatic transmissions have replaced the manual clutch on cars,” says Federico Ferrante, president of Azimut-Benetti USA. “We sell a lot of them on our Volvo IPS boats.” Right now, the length overall (LOA) sweet spot is 30 feet to over 60 feet but, as Volvo increases its power IPS ratings, that could jump to 80 or even 120 feet. Ferrante says the system is a natural fit for owner-operated boats, but also makes sense for larger vessels, as there is much less need for a professional captain. “It would save a lot of money by having just one deckhand,” he says.
According to Volvo’s Thorin, assisted docking is part of a company’s autonomy strategy that will then tackle collision avoidance on the way to eventually fully autonomous boats.
“There’s a lot to learn before full autonomy becomes a reality,” said John Reid, vice president of enterprise technology at Brunswick Society, the largest shipping company in the world. Radar, GPS, electronic charts, Lidar, image sensors and the like will be used to identify potential hazards, which means that a huge amount of data will have to be analyzed by on-board computers before consistent information is transmitted to the boater. Besides mooring, he says, “approaching vessels, speed zones and submerged objects are other pain points that need to be addressed. The system must see hundreds of meters in all directions, filtering out hazards.
Brunswick already offers a joystick docking station and, according to the company’s plans, its ACES initiative – for autonomy, connectivity, electrification and shared access – will eventually number 35 products. But like Thorin, Reid won’t reveal an internal timeline to full autonomy. “We will provide incremental improvements to control the ship,” he says. “But it will take time to go through the production phases.”
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