Self-driving boats move closer to reality

Oct 15, 2019

The boating season may be winding down, but an Amherst-based startup has been getting out on the water for trial runs of its self-driving pleasure boat.

On a recent sunny and warm Fall day, WBFO News got a ride on a 20-foot long speedboat outfitted with an autonomous driving system being developed by Buffalo Automation.
    
"It's a small team. We're not Uber. We're not Waymo or GM. We're just a small start up, " said Chris Edwards, the company's Lead Autonomous Systems Engineer. Edwards backs the boat away from the dock, just off Robinson Road, in North Tonawanda, then turns a key - engaging the system for a test ride on the Erie Canal.

Chris Edwards, Buffalo Automation's Lead Autonomous Systems Engineer demonstrates the company's self-driving boat
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"One of the reasons we come to the Erie Canal and the reasons we do this is that it's narrow enough that we can see exactly what the inaccuracies are and what the problems are. Like, if I was in the middle of Lake Erie, you might think, oh, well everything's fine, I'm on course. But you can be 50 meters off and it all looks fine. Here, you know. I'm either really quite on course or I'm slightly not on course. You know right away. So this is an excellent testing place for this."    

Computers onboard, programmed by Edwards and his team, steer the boat with the help of GPS and several cameras and sensors - including LIDAR.  
    
"The nice thing about LIDAR is that it's basically shooting lasers out into the world - receiving them back again - but not just like a laser range finder you'd buy at Home Depot to measure your house walls or something. This is measuring tens of thousands of points every second," Edwards said.

Developing an autonomous system for boating, he says, presents a lot of challenges.  
   
"It's not like driving - where you can stay in your lane pretty well. It's more like driving on a lot of ice - where if it's windy you're blowing laterally all over the place and you've gotta constantly adjust for some strange physics." 

Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

And he says the software has to recognize hazards - like partially submerged logs and other debris, nearly invisible fishing lines cast from boats, and kayakers who can change course quickly. There's also Mother Nature.  
    
"I like to get every kind of weather. I like to see the change of leaves color because that's also interesting for training purposes. You know, I don't want to have a trained model from the height of summer and then go into autumn and start realizing it doesn't understand things anymore because the leaves changed colors right? So just little subtle things like that where you know different kinds of conditions, different kinds of environments."   

In the upcoming off-season, Edwards says he and his team will be working to improve the machine learning algorithms the system runs on.
    
"We don't actually have to be on the water to do most of the sophisticated interesting stuff we need to do. What we need is the data. And so, as you see, we're collecting data right now. I'm collecting that thermal camera. I'm collecting LIDAR. I'm collecting all this stuff, as I make these trips everyday, so that we have the biggest arsenal of data to do this training with. Once we get that, then it's time to push the boundaries of what this kind of machine learning technology can provide to boating."    

Edwards says Buffalo Automation envisions its autonomous system opening recreational boating up to a wider audience.
    
"You know ultimately when the boat drives itself, it's like your barrier to entry is a lot lower in terms of expertise. You don't need to be some expert pilot who knows to avoid this area. You could imagine a boat that's set up that someone could just get in and have it take you around," Edwards said.

A view of Buffalo Automation's boat docked at the North Tonawanda Botanical Gardens, on Sweeney Street.
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

Brian Wyntjes with Collins Marine says he's not sure there would be much of a demand for autonomous boats.
    
"You know, I think half the fun of going boating is driving the boat, you know, not just sitting there," Wyntjes said.

But Gary Hall, president of Harbor Place Marine says, if the system gets approved it could help stop boating accidents.  
    
"People that aren't paying attention is a big obstacle out there at nighttime. Even boats with no lights on at nighttime. If it would be automated to the fact that it would turn the lights on automatically. Make sure the lights were working. Collision avoidance alarms etcetera, I mean a lot of things it could do." And Hall says, improving boater safety could be the system's biggest selling point.