Buffalo area company developing autonomous boat

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The self-driving boat during sea trials. Photo courtesy WBFO News

The self-driving boat during sea trials. Photo courtesy WBFO News

An Amherst, N.Y., based company has been conducting trial runs of a self-driving boat. Buffalo Automation recently took the local National Public Radio affiliate out for a ride during a trial of the autonomous system.

“We’re not Uber. We’re not Waymo or GM,” Chris Edwards, Buffalo Automation’s lead autonomous systems engineer, said in a statement before backing the boat into the Erie Canal for a test session.

He explained that the reason for conducting the test on the canal is that the body of water is narrow enough for the company to see inaccuracies and other flaws in the system. “If I was in the middle of Lake Erie, you might think, ‘Oh, well, everything’s fine, I’m on course,’” said Edwards. “Here, you know, I’m either really quite on course or I’m slightly not on course. You know right away. So this is an excellent testing place for this.”

The system consists of on board computers programmed by the Buffalo Automation team. They steer the boat with the help of GPS and several cameras and sensors including Light Imaging Detection and Ranging that detects objects on the surface as well as their size and exact disposition.

“The nice thing about LIDAR is that it’s basically shooting lasers out into the world — receiving them back again — but not just like a laser range finder you’d buy at Home Depot to measure your walls or something,” Edwards said. “This is measuring tens of thousands of points every second.”

He said the challenge of developing an autonomous operating system for boats is the elements including wind and current, comparing it to driving a car on ice. Additionally, the system needs to recognize hazards including submerged objects and debris, even fishing lines. Even leaves changing colors can affect the system.

During the off-season Buffalo Automation will be improving the system’s algorithms. Edwards says he will be on the water as much as possible to collect data. The more information he can collect for the system, the more the team can advance the machine learning technology.

Eventually, Edwards hopes to offer the boat to recreational boaters.