Pitts Stop: East Boston Startup Tests Self-Driving Boats

BOSTON (CBS) – You’ve heard of self-driving cars, but what about self-driving boats?

East Boston startup Sea Machines just put their second unmanned surface vessel (USV)  in the water, a Safeboat Defender 250 phased out by the Coast Guard.

“They bring value to things that are dangerous, dirty and dull and that’s really a lot of the operations in our space,” says Sea Machines CEO and founder Michael Johnson.

With 20 years of experience in the marine industry, Johnson came up with the idea to build an autonomous control system that could be outfitted to industrial boats.

“By enabling a vessel to be autonomous or unmanned now you can attack fires in a different way, you can get closer. We also mentioned oil spills. Just the aspect of cleaning up oil, it’s very dangerous from the toxins and fumes,” he told WBZ-TV.

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Back on land, Sea Machines employs an office of autonomy scientists. About fifteen people from local colleges and universities are working to advance the software.

Director of Operations Mike Cammack showed us how the technology works, but not before finding a clear, open space to test in.

We passed the Harbor Islands and finally ended up in an area by the JFK Library where we plugged in the coordinates the boat will autonomously follow. Then, we made a right turn – with no one behind the wheel.

The self-driving Safeboat Defender 250. (WBZ-TV)

This boat will eventually use radar to detect other boats in the harbor and make autonomous turns to avoid them. But just like the rules of the road, the rules of the water will need to be reevaluated.

“Every rule now relies on the fact that you have eyes and ears of a person on board so regulators from international, to states, to insurance regulations right now are being drafted,” says Johnson.

Sea Machines is also working on a home button to put on board the boat, when pressed the boat will automatically drive itself back to the dock. Just like a car can parallel park itself, the boat will also be able to dock on its own.

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