Ok, it’s not exactly available for the next Corolla model year, but there is so much going in with autonomous boating that we know a lot of the tech will make its way to the average Joe Boater over the coming years. One step is the announcement that Toyota has invested $10 million in a Series A round in Sea Machines, a Boston-based autonomous marine company. 

Sea Machines was launched in 2014 after founder Michael Johnson, a marine engineer, was staring at the grounded and capsized cruise ship, Costa Concordia. He thought, “We can do better than this.” 

From that experience and his involvement in recoving the ship came Sea Machines, a company completely devoted to developing autonomous marine technology. 

This is why autonomous technology appeals to boat owners and insurance companies. 

Autonomous technology of any kind has a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can virtually elminiate human error, which accounts for the vast majority of accidents either on the water or with automobiles. Certainly there are some thorny issues to be worked out with autonomous cars – such as the car deciding between saving a passenger or a pedestrian in a critical situation.

On the water, the issues around implementation are more straightforward. Accident avoidance is easier to engineer, and therefore, is more likely to be solved on water before it’s solved on land.

On the flip side, there is no doubt that this technology eliminates jobs while it eliminates human error. That’s the trade off, which has been going on for centuries, but may become more of an issue now as technology accelerates in development.

Alex Thomson, who recently competed in the Route de Rhum transatlantic sailing race sure wishes he had some autonomous tech on his boat. He overslept on a nap just 15 miles from winning his race and crashed into Guadaloupe. We certainly respect anyone who wants to take a nice nap on a boat, but wouldn’t it be great if some autonomous tech had altered course to avoid the ultimate rude awakening?

Alex Thomson had a lot of tech on board for his run at the Route de Rhum race, but not enough to avoid crashing the boat on a reef during a nap. 

The next step in autonomous boating for the average consumer seems incredibly close. When you think about you have at your disposal right now, it’s easy to envision a completely automous or semi-autonomous system. Today we have single screens that can integrate radar, GPS, AIS, wind, speed, depth, autohelm, engine, and more in once place. All of this information enables the skipper to make better decisions. The next step is to automate the more obvious decisions, such as making a course correction to avoid collision.

Sea Machines promotes the concept of “collaborative autonomy” – in other words, having people watch over things while the robots bob along. What if you could subscribe to a service in a similar way as Sea Tow, where there is someone monitoring the safety of both your systems and routing? That could feel like a marine nanny state or something that makes boating a lot more safe. Tech in this case could both connect you more while enabling you to disconnect. It would be nice to stare at screens less while on a boat. 

We’ve written about how the forthcoming adoption of OneNet by marine electronics industry will revolutionize how all our systems are integrated. Those developments, along with the work of companies like Sea Machines and others wil make safer, more accessible boating a reality. Sure Sea Machines is focused on commercial applications, but that’s often where innovation starts before it trickles down to the rest of us. 

The SM300 System from Sea Machines is an early product for autonomous control over survey vessels, patrol boats, ferries and other workboats. 

Sea Machines have a couple of early products to help commercial boat operators manange and control boats that are available today. They are primarily focused on commercial operations that require significant staffing, such as day-to-day workboats, not freighters or tankers, which require few people to operate. 

We will certainly continue to follow all developments in this area because of the technology’s pomise to eventually get more people out on the water to enjoy themselves by making it easier and less stressful to slip the lines.