Future of Travel

Can self-docking watercraft lure more people out to sea?

The world’s biggest pleasure boat maker is invested in finding out.
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Francis Scialabba

4 min read

We were just pulling into a marina on the western edge of Manhattan when the self-docking, million-dollar watercraft that we were on froze in the Hudson River, as if spooked by something. It took every human on board a second to realize why.

The autonomous system’s cameras had detected two swimmers in wetsuits doing maintenance work on the nearby piers. It blared a warning on each of the boat’s futuristic dashboard screens about a propeller injury hazard.

Coming to a stop on water is more of a feat than it might initially seem. One of the challenges that Brunswick Boat Group, the world’s largest maker of pleasure boats, has encountered in its quest to bring autonomous technology to the nautical realm is a glaring lack of brakes.

“Typically, on a vehicle that’s got gravity and land and tires, when you turn, it turns right away, and when you stop, it stops right away,” Brunswick CTO Alexandra Cattelan told Tech Brew during a demo tour on the boat. “With boating, there’s more control latency, or delay in response. And there’s no brakes.”

That’s just the start of the headwinds, both literal and figurative, that Brunswick’s engineers have had to face. Boats tend to move in many more directions than cars—up, down, side-to-side—and the water they’re navigating is sloshing around, too; even the dock bobs and sways.

But that’s also exactly why Brunswick is investing so much in making its boats more autonomous. Driving a boat can be daunting, and if the company can use automation to make it easier, more people might be willing to part with a small fortune to buy one.

“It’s quite intimidating if you’re in a 37-foot boat in tight corners like this with people wanting you to dock that boat, for example,” Cattelan said. “This is technology that will help people feel much more comfortable doing it. Especially a single helmsman or captain that’s on board alone.”

A decade-long voyage: Navigating in and out of a dock tends to be the trickiest part of driving a boat, which is why Brunswick is currently focusing on technology that does just that. But the company has charted a 10-year course to eventually make its boats more autonomous in other aspects through a series of new products and applications, Cattelan said. Right now, the system is at Level 2 autonomy, meaning a human is always at the helm to take control.

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“To be honest, right now, it’s new to the boating industry, to customers, and so we need to get the customer feedback to help understand exactly how we’re going to implement this in the future,” Cattelan said. “Is full autonomy what they want? Or is the Level 2 autonomy system that we’re building now sufficient? But we do see full autonomy in the future.”

An image of the boat dashboard

AVs aweigh: The Boston Whaler 405 Conquest that Brunswick uses to show off its tech is a 41-foot-long boat outfitted with an array of discreetly placed cameras and sensors. That hardware feeds into a below-deck computer system, which is controllable through a set of dashboard screens up top. The boat also notably runs on lithium-ion batteries rather than the usual diesel generator.

Because of the aforementioned lack of brakes, Brunswick taps a technology called Skyhook to hold the boat in place, using the GPS and motors to lock the boat’s location and orientation while accounting for winds and currents.

An image of the Boston Whaler 405 Conquest

Brandon Ferriman, Brunswick’s program director of autonomy and advanced driver assistance system programs, said he came to the boating giant from the automotive industry ready for a new challenge. Autonomous tech for boats was still in a more exciting phase—engineers were just trying to make it work—while the auto industry had moved beyond that to the dollars-and-cents process of fully commercializing the technology for business purposes, he said.

“Heavy validation”: Brunswick is shooting for a rollout of its auto-docking tech around 2025; it’s currently entering the “heavy validation” stage, where the system will be put to the test over and over again in every scenario imaginable, Ferriman said. That initial release will help inform Brunswick’s approach to how the technology might fit into other watercraft throughout its product lines, adjusting for cost and the purposes of each boat, he said.

Cattelan, whose background is also in the auto industry, said there is an open sea of potential right now for applying autonomous tech to a range of different kinds of boating. Beyond Brunswick, that could also extend to fishing, freight, and eventually transforming the way people move across the water.

“It was really interesting to now apply [automotive experience] to the marine industry because there’s a lot of whitespace for us to enter,” Cattelan said.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.