This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was an opportunity for the marine industry to show how modern boats are as advanced as other contemporary vehicles and, in many cases, are following similar technological paths. Brunswick Corp. exhibited for the first time in front of 180,000 people in January, not only unveiling the Sea Ray SLX-R 400e and its technology suite, but also showing off what the future of boating could look like.
New technology and new business models are reshaping the boating industry. The marine technology stack contains many parallels to advanced land vehicles and aircraft. Modern boats have synchronized, digital control of multiple engines and on-board systems; sophisticated sensor suites; high levels of refinement, comfort and sociability; closed-loop optimization of fuel economy; and boat stability and drivability. Modern boats also have intuitive control systems with robotic features that provide significant operator assistance.
In some ways, the sensor technology on boats parallels that on aircraft, but boaters need to be able to see what’s under the water as well as what’s above it. So most boats have advanced radar, sonar and GPS-based route charting and following capabilities, along with communications that include satellite radio for offshore applications.
Boats are now advanced machines, and Brunswick is determined to maintain and enhance its leading capabilities to develop more advanced systems. While we work internally, we are also partnering with other companies and academic institutions to form an expanded technological ecosystem. Through our ACES strategy (autonomy, connectivity, electrification and shared use), we have been able to present a unique and effective path forward to growing and redefining the marine industry.
Our customers’ expectations come from their other mobility experiences. In particular, we see the tracks of autonomy and advanced driver assistance systems, connectivity, electrification and shared access as being important to the future of our products and services.
While there are challenges in autonomy on the water, there are also opportunities, as showcased not just at CES, but also through partnerships with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, through an autonomous vessel startup called Sea Machines, and through marine vision systems supplier FLIR/Raymarine — all of whom came to CES to talk about what autonomy may look like in the future. We plan to continue our commercial ADAS rollout with more advanced features in 2020.
In the last couple of years, our industry has taken a large step forward in telematics, or remote monitoring, for our boats. One of the main uses is owners whose boat is at a marina. An owner can remotely monitor systems and set geofences. Our internally developed connected solution is called Nautic-On, and it is standard on our premium boats.
Electrification is also an area that Brunswick’s exhibit at CES highlighted, and it will be a focus at the upcoming Miami boat shows. One of the differences between marine and automotive markets with electrification is that most reasonable-size boats consume a lot of power. Moving through the water consumes a lot more energy than moving through air, and boats don’t have brakes, so you can’t recover energy as readily as you can in a car.
Electrification of propulsion is progressing into the marine industry, but only on the edges with small boats going short distances. What was showcased at CES was for larger boats, where a lot of the electrification is in subsystems beyond propulsion. A lot of larger boats have an on-board generator or a Fathom system (another internal combustion engine that generates power for the boat). The opportunity we have there is to use modern battery technology and switching systems to replace that generator with a much more integrated, high-capacity energy storage system.
The other trend that automotive companies (and Brunswick) showcased at CES was shared access. Boating and how people access the water have changed and will continue to evolve. Freedom Boat Club, which Brunswick acquired in May 2019, is the largest boat club in the world, with more than 210 locations, providing an outlet to get on the water without immediate boat ownership.
Safety is another element to the boating lifestyle, and Brunswick displayed Mercury’s First Mate wristbands. Brunswick’s boats also offer active ride and stability control, with rams that operate via large, active surfaces on the hull bottom. And many boats are fitted with gyroscopic stabilization that eliminates a large percentage of roll motion.
So in modern boats there are parallels to the fuel economy technologies, active ride control and active aero devices found on high-performance road vehicles.
The Sea Ray SLX-R 400e that Brunswick unveiled at CES was packed full of technology, illustrating several elements that are an execution of Brunswick’s ACES innovation strategy. The boat had an interactive replica of the current SLX-R 400-e helm and could show how the helm of the future might look. The current helm offered showgoers an opportunity to interact with the SLX-R 440-e and witness several of the ACES technologies that are making boating more intuitive and sustainable.
Starting at the stern, the SLX-R 440-e was powered with triple 450R Mercury Racing outboards, capable of pushing the boat at more than 65 knots with 22 people on board. The boat is equipped with Mercury’s JPO (joystick piloting outboard) system, which enables fantastic low-speed maneuverability, Skyhook station-keeping and autopilot. The current JPO technology already delivers many advanced piloting features, and it lays a solid foundation for future autonomous features, such as auto-docking.
Amidships, the 400-e has Sea Ray’s new Fathom e-Power system. The Fathom system replaces the on-board gasoline generator with a lithium-ion battery storage system consisting of 22 kWh of energy storage and the DC/AC inverters necessary for handling the boat’s AC house loads. Energy storage is sized to provide enough charge for typical day cruises and can be recharged via shore power or by using the triple 115-amp, engine-driven alternators while underway. The Fathom system results in a quiet, carbon dioxide- and carbon monoxide-free environment while the boat is at rest, enhancing the overall boating experience.
At the helm are several technologies surrounding Brunswick’s vision of connectivity. The boat is equipped with CZone digital switching technology, which integrates and connects vessel systems to allow monitoring and control from a touchscreen multifunction display. The display is also integrated with propulsion, the Fathom system and other systems, such as navigation, radar and sonar. This highly configurable system lets the skipper customize, display and control whatever critical vessel parameters are most important to him.
The demonstration helm also displayed several other connected products, including Mercury Marine’s VesselView Mobile smartphone application. VesselView Mobile lets the user monitor propulsion via the app in much the same way he or she could by using Mercury SmartCraft digital gauges.
The helm also showcased Mercury’s new First Mate wireless man overboard detection system. And the SLX-R 440-e has Brunswick’s Nautic-On connected vessel product, which allows remote monitoring of critical vessel systems such as battery voltage, bilge levels and vessel location from a smartphone.
These products are a glimpse into what connectivity can mean to the boater of the future.
Troy Kollmann is director of Brunswick’s i-Jet Lab at the University of Illinois.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.