BRIGHT SPARKS - Electronic horizons

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There appears no end to the limits of technology — AI intuitive boat systems, improving electrical storage and generation — the list goes on

BRIGHT SPARKS - Electronic horizons
BRIGHT SPARKS - Electronic horizons

Computers costing only $1000 are expected to have the same processing power as the human brain by 2019, according to scientists, yet only a few years ago GPS was an expensive novelty on boats.

The lifecycle of technological development is often spurred on by expensive early development, often by deep-pocketed organisations such as the military (who pioneered radar in the 1940s and enabled GPS in the 1960s, for instance) and large primary industries, long before it filters down to boaters.

Some of the buzzwords that are major technology enablers include robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and nanotechnology. For instance, the robotic device in future autopilots will be fed with information from ultra-sensitive sensors, speed transducers and even sophisticated wind detection instruments, analysed by AI black boxes and translated into motion; relegating the helmsman to a mere second-in-command. Some of this technology was shown off earlier this year in the America’s Cup when Australian James Spithill piloted the 90-foot BMW Oracle trimaran with the aid of an electronics-filled backpack in conjunction with special sunglasses, using
nanotechnology lenses that streamed data.

Moving on from this, robotics and AI will become a much greater part of control systems and likely be expanded in systems that are already in use, such as Volvo’s IPS drives and Beneteau’s newly announced Dock and Go system, for instance.

Video analytics is another buzz-phrase that will have more and more commercial applications in the future with companies such as FLIR in the US pioneering night-vision products that could aid even the ordinary boater.

After the recent acquisition of Raymarine, FLIR has just announced that its T-Series thermal night-vision cameras will be the first thermal-imaging systems to be fully integrated with a multifunction navigation display. What this means is that Raymarine’s E Series Widescreen users can directly control a T-Series thermal night-vision camera using the HybridTouch interface to pan, tilt and zoom the camera.

A future stage of this functionality could be video analytics, whereby the AI style software, the Nexus operating system in FLIR’s case, actually reacts to what is on the screen. The company already has a form of this fitted in some BMW and Audi cars, which auto-detects pedestrians and takes avoiding action. So doing the same for collision avoidance at sea doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination and from a night-time safety aspect it could be great. Nicknamed "slew to cue", the camera pans to the MOB victim automatically giving visual and directional information to the rescuers.

The implications for navigation at sea becomes even more interesting when this technology is combined, something that multifunction displays and the NMEA2000 protocol is already advancing. Radar’s traditional strength is long-range target spotting, so combining the power of modern broadband radar with night-vision imagery, all laid out upon three-dimensional charting software, really does give the navigator an amazing amount of information. Then add to this depth and forward sonar that feeds real-time data into the system and the navigator has a complete virtual image.

Further enhancements in other systems such as AIS could mean that every navigational mark emits an electronic signal, which is fed into the system as well, so layers of information can be built up and dealt with, leaving the skipper to simply manage the vessel.

Powering all this technology more efficiently is another challenge that is being met, thanks to developments in renewable energy and batteries. Some of the buzzwords here include lithium-Ion and photovoltaic cells. Lithium-Ion batteries are light, have three times the energy density and charger faster than lead-acid varieties, but are expensive. Other lithium variants are Lithium Polymer, Lithium Cobalt Oxide, and Lithium Manganese Oxide, which have an even higher energy density. Leading company Mastervolt’s lithium-Ion batteries are based on Lithium Iron Phosphate and available here.

Another company using similar technology is German outboard-maker Torqeedo. Combining these batteries efficient stored power with the emerging nano-photovoltaic energy cells should enable boats to be much more efficient at sea. The beauty of nanotechnology is that it allows thin layers of photovoltaic cells to be painted onto conventional metals to absorb solar energy.

The bottom line is that technology should liberate us from the more mundane and allow us to enjoy our boating even more, so user friendliness and practical usage will be the true test of future gear I think.

Photos: Australian James Spithill won the America’s Cup this year using
an electronic backpack
that processed a staggering 26,000 data points per second from 250 onboard sensors that fed data into lenses of his sunglasses;
Infrared specialist Flir is pioneering video analytics, allowing rescuers to find and actually see targets during night rescues; Lithium-ion batteries have three times the energy density of lead acid.


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