Volvo launches new self-docking technology

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The boat is backing itself into the slip between two of the vessels competing in the Volvo Ocean Race.

The boat is backing itself into the slip between two of the vessels competing in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Volvo Penta launched a new self-docking technology during the Volvo Ocean Race in Gothenburg, Sweden on Saturday. With about 10 boating journalists on board, including the editor of Soundings Trade Only, the captain of Volvo Penta’s Azimut 68 test boat pushed a button on the helm and the yacht automatically began to back into a slip between two Volvo Ocean Race 65 yachts. The system was designed around the company’s Inboard Performance System (IPS), which links the helm, engine and propellers through joystick controls.

The company has not issued a formal name for the new technology, but Volvo officials referred to it as “Easy Docking.” It is expected to be available as an option on OEM boats in 2020.

Volvo Penta President Bjorn Ingemanson said the system was developed to take the fear out of docking, one of the biggest challenges for boat owners. “Getting it wrong can be embarrassing, expensive and precarious,” Ingemanson told the writers. “The sensors and onboard computers react in milliseconds to changing wind and sea conditions, constantly making micro adjustments in power and steering angle of the IPS drive to keep the boat on its intended course.”

The system initially uses GPS to identify a “catch zone,” or an area where the boat enters the automatic docking mode. As the yacht moves closer to the dock, onboard sensors in the cockpit and at different corners of the slip take over, providing constant feedback to the yacht’s electronic vessel control system (EVC), which makes constant deviations during the maneuver. Volvo set up the system to keep about a six-foot distance between the two race boats on either side, and to reverse much more slowly than a traditional helmsperson might. The Azimut performed as expected, coming to a perfect stop in front of not only the two teams on the race boats, but also a large on-shore crowd. Volvo, not known for being ostentatious, had upped the drama levels by docking between the two million-dollar race boats that are preparing to finish the last leg of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Here is a video of the system in action:

Johan Inden, Volvo Penta’s chief technology officer, told the press that the company has wanted to make the docking experience easier for years. “The first step towards this was in 2006, with the launch of our joystick docking technology,” he said. “That was followed by Dynamic Positioning System. Now, we are taking the next step by enabling the boat to dock itself.” The goal, he said, is not only to attract more people to boating but to retain those who may not be comfortable with docking.

Besides working with OEM partners, Volvo said it plans to introduce a retrofit version that would operate with all IPS-equipped yachts.

Volvo officials also spoke about “enabled marinas,” which would carry the sensors and be able to accommodate self-docking boats in special slips. The company expects most users to have the sensors on their home docks.

Volvo officials made a strong distinction between automatic docking and autonomous boats. In the case of this technology, the captain needs to stay at the helm during the process, ready to intervene if conditions happen to overwhelm the system. The system also has a “pause” function where the boat is held in place if the owners need more time to deploy the lines or another craft interferes with the docking situation. The company is currently developing the system to include anti-collision features.

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