TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – A local company is making waves with a boat that drives itself.
Buffalo Automation’s autonomous vessel- a small Sea Ray outfitted with several cameras and sensors- can be spotted cruising up and down Western New York’s waterways.
The boat can drive itself up to 30 mph, navigating the best path through the water while avoiding obstacles like wildlife, kayakers, and other boats.
The purpose of the trips is to collect data.
“Every day I’m out here for several hours,” Chris Edwards, lead autonomous systems engineer for Buffalo Automation said. “What different conditions are, different weather, different times of the season, different levels of crowdedness on the water- these are all things we try to come out here and get an experience with better data for.”
The self-driving technology is ideal for boaters making tedious trips through 5 mph no-wake zones, as well as to improve safety, Edwards said.
“There are a lot of situations where you’re hoping to not bottom out and you don’t know where you are- but if you’re not actually doing the driving, you don’t have to worry about it,” Edwards said.
Since the system utilizes thermal cameras, it can quickly spot people in the water.
“Kayakers can be tricky to see, so that can be a big help,” Edwards said.
Buffalo Automation’s self-driving technology could be in boats as soon as next year, CEO Thiru Vikram said.
“We’re looking for a partner who manufactures boats, so this could be part of their new build process,” Vikram said. “We’re in talks with some people, and hopefully next summer there will be new boats with our technology.”
Vikram envisions the autonomous technology will not only help boat owners enjoy their watercraft more, but also make boating more accessible to those without sea legs.
“You don’t have to be an expert in boating because the boat drives itself- you don’t have to own the boat, you can just rent it,” Vikram explained.
Vikram said he believes the technology could make it easier to commute via boat, and that a ride-share app for boats would be possible with the self-driving technology.
“Most people, when they own a boat it’s really an expenditure because most of the time its in the dock- but what if your boat could pay for itself over time?” Vikram said.
Vikram said WNY’s varied weather and plethora of waterways makes it a perfect location for testing AI technology.
“We’ve got Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, the Niagara River- a lot of great places that give you a mix of the data you need for a self-driving system,” Vikram said. “There’s also a great mix of weather throughout the year- icy conditions versus warm conditions, a lot of things like that.”
Buffalo Automation, which was born during Buffalo Start-Up Week in 2014, also creates autonomous navigation systems for commercial ships and is working on autonomous technology for tractor trailers.
“We think that human progress has only happened when people have free time,” Vikram said. “When you think about the Industrial Revolution, suddenly there were weekends- people could write stuff, new ideas were born.”
“We’re about giving free time to people,” he continued. “As things keep getting automated, you’re going to have more free time, and that’s progress.”