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Your neighbor has a new Tesla automobile that can parallel park itself with a tap on its touch screen. My neighbor plants corn hands-free with a GPS-guided John Deere tractor that turns itself around at the end of a row, self-aligns with a three-inch tolerance and proceeds down the field while he sits in the cab checking futures prices on his tablet.

Which begs the question: When will my boat be this smart? When will I be able to touch the screen and then rub sunscreen on my wife’s shoulders while the boat backs itself into a slip?

The technological cure for your docking anxiety may not be that far off. Late this year new docking-assist systems from Volvo Penta and Raymarine will reach the pleasure craft market. Neither offers autonomous docking capability, but each represents a step in that direction. Let’s take a look at two options that are available.

Volvo Penta assisted docking

As an experienced captain approaching a dock, you make note of wind velocity and direction by looking at flags on shore and of current by checking for water flowing around pilings. You then make a quick mental calculation—if you want the boat to go here, you need to aim over there. Volvo Penta Assisted Docking is designed to automate your mental calculation and reduce the stress many captains experience during docking situations.

Revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Assisted Docking is a new layer of software for the Volvo
Penta’s Electronic Vessel Control (EVC) and Dynamic Positioning System (DPS). Through the joystick you signal your intended speed and course. If dynamic variables—wind or current—cause the vessel to stray from that course, Assisted Docking automatically intervenes, fine-tuning thrust (including bow thruster) and steering to maintain the intended course. In fact, Volvo Penta says a bow thruster with control integrated to the IPS EVC is the optimal set-up, as this reduces the force required by the IPS drives to maintain the desired heading. Assisted Docking will also fine-tune boat control in other situations. For example, on a long, no-wake transit or while maneuvering through a marina at low speed, Assisted Docking will work in the background to maintain the captain’s intended course, even if wind or current cause the boat to drift from that course. Let go of the joystick and the system will assume you’d like the boat to remain stationary. It will make the required corrections to hold that position against wind or current.

“Assisted Docking is a hybrid between automated docking and manual docking,” says Ida Sparrefors, director of autonomous solutions and new business models at Volvo Penta. “The beauty of this system is that it gives the captain enhanced control. With our team of experts, we have made it behave intuitively in all situations, so that anyone can feel like a seasoned captain.”

Volvo Penta will offer Assisted Docking as an option to its basic IPS system for motor yachts ranging in size from 35 to 120 feet. Tiara Yachts will add Assisted Docking to its Volvo Penta IPS-powered 44 Coupe and 39 Coupe for the 2022 model year, but will make the feature standard equipment included in the base price, and we expect other builders may do the same. Assisted Docking will also be available in late 2021 as a retrofit for existing IPS-powered boats. The retrofit will require a software upgrade and a new antenna, and professional installation. In 2018 Volvo Penta demonstrated an autonomous docking system on a 68-foot yacht that utilized GPS, sensors on the vessel and a sensor on the dock, so stay tuned.

DockSense is an object recognition and motion-sensing system that can hold a boat a foot off a dock for hours. 

DockSense is an object recognition and motion-sensing system that can hold a boat a foot off a dock for hours. 

Raymarine Docksense Control

We called DockSense Control a “force field surrounding your boat” after a 2019 prototype demonstration with Boston Whaler and Mercury Marine. DockSense—an intelligent object recognition and motion-sensing technology that’s combined with Mercury Joystick Piloting—anticipates boat movement and commands the joystick control system to gently intervene to keep the boat 3 feet away from any object. When we tested the prototype, we could not bash the dock if we tried. And we did try.

This year, DockSense Control was installed on a new Monte Carlo 76 Skylounge motoryacht with Volvo Penta IPS drives. And Brunswick recently announced it will offer DockSense Control on its Boston Whaler 380 Realm in late 2021 (pricing has not been revealed). Mercury Marine has been intimately involved in developing and validating DockSense, along with Prestige Yachts of France.

DockSense utilizes five FLIR 3-D stereo vision cameras that are positioned to capture a 360-degree view around the boat and identify any object projecting more than 40 centimeters above the water’s surface. The image created by the cameras is depicted on a Raymarine Axiom MFD at the helm in graphic and video form, and there is an audible alert that warns the captain when an object is in proximity to the boat. The Virtual Bumper can be programmed to best match the width of a slip. Once in position, the captain can turn off the Virtual Bumper to port or starboard and manually snug up to the dock. Mercury developed an automated feature which on command autonomously aligns the boat with the dock and then snugs up tight and holds that position—against an offshore wind, for example—while the boat is being secured. McGowen says DockSense enables extremely fine control of boat heading and position, much more precise than virtual anchor systems like Mercury Skyhook, and “can hold the boat one foot off a dock for hours.”

McGowen says for now DockSense Control will be an OEM installation, and its setup is quite complex.

“We need accurate 3-D files of the boat, detailed stability and trim data, including the center of gravity and center of rotation,” says McGowen. “Once the system is dialed in for a particular boat model, the setup is repeatable by the builder.”

Raymarine has also revealed DockSense Alert, a system that uses the same imagining and sensing technology as DockSense Control but does not interact with the vessel’s powertrain. The captain gets the same view on a Raymarine Axiom MFD, and the system will sound an audible Virtual Bumper alert, but it’s then up to the captain to make a course adjustment.

Is full autonomous control attainable?

“I can totally see autonomous docking for pleasure boats in the future,” says McGowen. “We have the hardware to do it. The software needs to be developed to recognize anomalies, like the kayak that suddenly paddles across your slip.”

Meanwhile, in a 2021 investor presentation, Brunswick Corporation reported rapid progress on its Autonomous Connected Electrified Shared (ACES) strategy, which it considers a framework for future technology. It now has 700 employees devoted to ACES commercialization and announced an exclusive partnership with Carnegie Robotics to develop Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) and autonomy products for marine.

Brunswick also is in partnership with Boston-based Sea Machines Robotics, which already offers autonomous/remote control systems aimed for the commercial marine market. All of which suggests your dream of a self-docking boat could be just over the horizon. 

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.

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