We attended a media event in New York to get the first look at Brunswick's currently unnamed autonomous docking system.
In consumer surveys taken all around the world, prospective boaters consistently give the same answer when asked why they haven’t taken the plunge and actually bought a boat. It isn’t money, and it isn’t time. Rather, the number one reason people give when asked why they haven’t become boaters is because they’re uncomfortable with the idea of having to bring their vessel back to the dock.
In countries all around the world, the fear of losing control to an unexpected gust of wind, or perhaps an unseen wake from a passing vessel, makes people nervous. It’s a particularly strong fear among people who grew up without a boat in the family, and for whom the entire idea of boating is new and unfamiliar. No one wants to become that guy in a viral YouTube video.
Assisted docking systems that can bring a boat into a slip address those fears, and they will be key to growing participation in boating moving forward. It's also why so many companies are racing to develop their own assisted docking platforms – including boating industry titans like Brunswick.
The largest boat and engine builder in the world, Brunswick was one of the first marine industry companies to begin developing an assisted docking platform by partnering with Raymarine in 2019 to integrate a version of their DockSense technology into Mercury’s joystick piloting platform.
Of course, a lot has changed in the world since 2019 including Brunswick’s acquisition of electronics giant Navico in 2021 with considerable R&D aimed at developing a unique autonomous docking platform.
By August 2023, the company was ready to unveil its latest auto docking prototype to a handful of media – me included – so I hopped on a jet and made my way to New York for a first-hand look.
You don’t need to skip to the end of the story because I’ll tell you right now – it works, and it works really well.
The as-yet unnamed system uses a pair of differential GPS GNSS receivers and a series of onboard stereoscopic cameras to determine the vessel’s exact position. That also allows it to determine the boat's exact proximity to other objects like docks, piers, sea walls, and other boats, both docked and underway. But beyond simple object recognition, it also has the ability to incorporate machine learning algorithms to make decisions for course and speed while bringing the vessel to a pre-selected slip.
The combination of situational awareness and navigational decision making allows the system to neatly maneuver around obstacles and bring the vessel to the dock, says Brandon Ferriman, program director for Brunswick’s Autonomy and ADAS programs. “Differential GPS is extremely accurate, but once we’re close to the dock the stereoscopic cameras become invaluable,” he says. “We use stereo cameras because they can perceive depth, just like having two eyes. They're able to see we're coming up to an object, and track it as the boat approaches. We're simultaneously getting the input from the GPS sensors of where we are on the map. Coordinating all of this is a very advanced, high-performance computer to analyze that data.”
Onboard a Boston Whaler 405 Conquest outfitted with the system, Ferriman demonstrated its simple operation on a large Simrad display mounted for the purpose on the passenger console. The boat, and the surrounding docks at Pier 58 in Chelsea, were clearly displayed from an overhead map vantage point, along with multiple camera inputs. Selecting a random point in the open water off the docks, Ferriman then tapped the GO button onscreen, crossed his arms across his chest and turned away from the helm to make it perfectly clear that it was the boat doing the driving. The three Mercury 600s on the transom hummed to life and the big Whaler obediently crabbed sideways off the pier, executed a very tight 90 degree turn stern-first, and backed slowly toward the open water through a very confined channel packed with big yachts.
“This might be one of the tightest slips in the whole place right now, with all the large yachts in town at the moment,” he observed. But as the onscreen cameras showed, and my own rapid glances out the pilothouse windows confirmed, the Whaler continued backing clear of the slip and into the open water on its prescribed route, making immediate corrections for occasional wind gusts.
After taking a few moments to discuss technical milestones in the system’s development while we drifted in the breeze, Ferriman asked if I was ready to return to the slip. Another quick tap on the screen had the boat gliding back toward its congested parking space -- Ferriman again standing back from the helm, his hands tucked into his pockets rather than holding the wheel. The approaching wake from a passing Staten Island ferry promised to make things a lot more interesting as the Whaler slowly approached the point of having to make its dogleg turn for the slip.
The wake arrived right on cue with the Whaler midway through super-tight 90-degree turn. The three big Mercs huffed matter-of-factly to counter the wake’s push, holding the boat right on course. As I watched, the wake hit the pier and bounced back to strike the boat a second time. Again the Mercs hummed in defiance, and the big Whaler calmly continued on its way, easing up parallel to the slip before holding just short of the dock. Giving the screen a final tap to confirm the ‘Go to Dock’ command, Ferriman and I watched as the software brought the boat close enough to the slip I probably could have spanned the remaining gap with my iPhone. Lines secured, engines off, all without ever touching the wheel.
All in all, it’s pretty damn impressive.
Even so, Ferriman emphasized that the system remains an early prototype with further work to be done. “Our timeline is to bring this to market in 2025,” he says. “This prototype is pretty close in terms of development, so what we have to do now is fine tune it and validate it all through real world use. I came from the automotive industry, and led a project with a car company requiring validation over one million kilometers. So we had about 30 cars running seven days a week, going through all environments and geographic locations. We want to replicate something along those lines in the marine world for two primary reasons. First, Brunswick is putting its name on it, so it has to work as it should. Secondly, we’re asking the boat driver to give up some control, so it is imperative that we’re putting a safe product out there. Of course the owner can reclaim control at any time by just turning the wheel or moving the joystick, but that shouldn’t be required.”
So what further tweaks remain? The software is inherently cautious, perhaps to the point some experienced boaters could find it a bit slow moving and tentative. While that’s unlikely to be a worry for the less experienced boat buyers it targets, old salts sharing marina space with them might wish the system were a little more confident and quicker in use.
Otherwise, there’s not much to fault.
Brunswick’s docking assist component marks the first step toward a more fully autonomous operating platform, says Brett Dibkey, Brunswick Corp executive vice president and division president of Navico Group. “It's a starting point on the platform,” he says. “We’re on a journey with autonomy, and auto docking is the first step in that journey. This provides the framework for the integration of all of the technology that we have in our portfolio, from radar and GPS and sonar, plus the full integration with Mercury engines, to really transform the entire boating experience from end to end. From getting off the dock out on the water to navigating around obstacles, anchoring, returning to the dock at the end of the day, all those things are within reach now. That thousand mile journey begins with a single step, and this is more of a giant leap.”