A thing airplanes and modern boats have in common is the autopilot feature.

That might sound pretty high-tech, but the harsh reality of the autopilot is that it is a responsive system after all. This means that it needs to detect a change in the environment in order to adjust the parameters of the vehicle.

Three undergrads from the University at Buffalo, New York, prepared an upgrade for the antiquated marine autopilots. To reach their goal, the engineering students created the Buffalo Automation Group. The incorporation allows them to secure intellectual property as well as receive funding for the ongoing development process. Their efforts are promising, to the extent that we might see autopilot self-navigating boats very soon.  

The young researchers point out the big difference between the current autopilot systems which are reactive, and their patent, which is advanced enough to be predictive. Their marine autopilot system uses a multitude of cameras, sensors and Wi-Fi communication to map, evaluate and bypass hostile weather conditions, obstacles in the water or any potentially dangerous situations. Static nautical data helps the computer steer the ship along the safest, simplest course. Nautical charts are an important part of the system's database.

Skippers may simply select a destination from their connected laptops or smartphones. "Essentially, you will connect your smartphone or laptop to the system. From there, you use your device to tell the system where you'd like to go. It then guides the boat, from port to port, using the safest, most efficient route possible," explains Alex Zhitelzeyf, one of the group's co-founders. 

Multiple destinations are supported, so passionate sailors can plan a whole itinerary. The software is advanced enough to even dock the ship upon reaching port. The captain can take manual control of the boat anytime or rely entirely on the navigation software.

Buffalo Automation targets small yachts and motorized boats up to 40 feet long, based on the flawless tests that it did on a 16-foot catamaran. The three students expect to further improve the predictive autopilot system after finishing their undergraduate degree. They already stated that they are interested in attracting capital venture to take the idea into serial production. Boat manufacturers and marine electronics producers might want to take a closer look at the team's device.

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