Are self-navigating boats on the horizon?

Oct 16, 2017

A sea change could be on the way for lake freighters and other watercraft. A local start up is developing technology that could revolutionize how ships navigate from port to port. 

BAG's Pegasus Prototype
Credit Buffalo Automation Group

In a cookie cutter office park of single-story buildings, off Maple Road, in Amherst, Buffalo Automation Group's founders, Thiru Vikram and Alexander Zhitelzeyf, are developing self-navigating technology for ships. Zhitelzeyf says, it's funny they're both passionate about robotics. But they don't have a background in boating.

"The interest in robotics makes boating itself a really interesting technical challenge for us. Because with a self-driving car you have a vehicle that's going in a straight path. It's a level road most of the time. When you're on a boat you have unique challenges where you have pitch, yaw. And it's quite interesting to try to tackle these challenges," Zhitelzeyf said.

BAG's Chief Operating Officer Alexander Zhitelzeyf
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

Vikram says typical autopilots work by waypoint navigation and are unable to see other ships and maneuver out of the way when necessary.

"Our system is able to see obstacles and then take corrective action before ever having to collide," Vikram said.  

And he says, it eliminates the chance of human error.

"Our vision is for the system to have a voice activated Siri type of functionality, where you say, AutoMate take me to Toronto. And the boat undocks, takes you to Toronto, and when you're there, it tells you you're there. And along the way you can do whatever you want. It doesn't matter because it's going to take care of everything else," Vikram said.  

At this point, Buffalo Automation Group is not looking to lure in recreational boaters. Zhitelzeyf says, compared to the cost of a small boat, AutoMate is expensive and the technology would "take the fun out of boating for people."
"But there's a lot of commercial vessels that are extremely viable for this type of technology. And when you have larger-scale boats it actually makes a lot of sense in terms of insurance costs, in terms of early obstacle avoidance, early detection," Zhitelzeyf said.  

Vikram says the system will make the water safer because technology will always handle things, like bad weather, "better than a human would." He says 80 percent of maritime accidents, in the U.S., are caused by human error.  
"People, they're standing watch. But they get bored under long hours. Especially in the maritime space. You don't wake up when the sun [rises]. There's a very different cycle. They sleep for six hours. They work for six hours. So it's not you're regular day. It's a very tedious, tiresome job. And the system doesn't need sleep. It doesn't need anything. It never gets bored. And it always works as long as the ship is functioning. And so that 80 percent human error rate is going to go down because humans will be playing a smaller role," Vikram said.

Thiru Vikram, BAG's CEO
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

The company was a semifinalist in the 43North competition last year. And they also won UB’s Henry Panasci Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, and the New York Business Plan Competition's Information Technology/Software award. Instead of going after single customers, Vikram says, they're working with local lake freighter companies.
"That's very advantageous for what we're doing because we have a single point of contact that gives us access to the entire organization's data. So we can put different types of sensors on an entire fleet as opposed to individual boats," Vikram said.

And they expect to conduct beta-tests on a 750 foot-long dry bulk ship by December.

"As long as you have an indicator, being a sign or a just rotating light, just saying that this is an autonomous vehicle, this is something that is currently allowed by the Coast Guard. And we're able to do our testing, in that way, as long as we're safe from everybody else. And this will allow us to gather as much data as we need," Zhitelzeyf said.

Vikram says, he believes some day there will be completely autonomous unmanned cargo ships.

"We have this saying, anything that's not inherently creative can be automated. So we think of a world where all these things that are boring, and something you don't want to do, is done for you. And if you look at the maritime industry, I can think of goods and cargo, and the world's supply chain, just moving itself. You know, we spend our time doing creative, exciting, great things. And we don't have to worry. The world just takes care of itself basically," Vikram said.

Zhitelzeyf says, "it's just a natural progression of where technology is heading." And he's glad Buffalo Automation Group is spearheading it in the marine industry.