With its Virtual Bumper technology has Raymarine eradicated the stress and strain from berthing?
Imagine for a moment that you could berth your boat safe in the knowledge that it was impossible to bump into anything. That even on the windiest of days with the tide pouring mercilessly beneath the hull and a crowd assembled to watch you ding a topside the boat is immune from damage. That an invisible bumper around its perimeter meant you could never collide with obstacles.
Neighbouring boats, pontoons, piles, navigation marks, sharp-edged fuel quays; none of them are a threat because your boat simply repels them like the matching poles of a magnet. Thanks to Raymarine and its development partner Prestige, this is not the fevered dream of a panicking boat handler but a new reality to take the edge off entering/leaving a berth.
DockSense-assisted berthing technology uses Raymarine’s parent company FLIR’s machine vision camera technology (the same cameras used to count the number of people entering/exiting shops) to analyse the boat’s surroundings and feed this information to the vessel’s steering and propulsion system.
“It could not rely on dock-mounted sensors,”, Erik Stomberg, Prestige’s director of marketing says, “and market research tells us that there isn’t the appetite for full autonomy like there is in the car world. People still want to berth the boat themselves, they’re just looking for assistance. A safety net.”
He is referring to Volvo Penta’s system, previewed last year, which promises a true self-parking boat. The downside is that it relies on sensors mounted on the quayside for the boat to back itself into a berth autonomously. He thinks there are too many inhibiting factors, namely the scale of the dockside infrastructure that would be needed to make the technology a viable proposition.
The Raymarine version avoids this by mounting marine-grade machine cameras on the boat itself. As few as three cameras are needed if predominantly berthing stern-to but five will cover all corners of the boat including the bow. These cameras record accurate position data multiple times per second and feed that information to a central processor via an Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) which combined with GPS data negates the effects of tide and wind. Think of it like Cummins’ Skyhook system but with laser-focused accuracy. This is where it gets really clever, though.
The system employs what Raymarine calls a Virtual Bumper (usually set to 3ft around the boat, though this can be adjusted) that feeds information directly to the boat’s propulsion system and physically stop it from coming in to contact with obstacles. Prestige has a video recorded on board its demo vessel at Raymarine’s Southampton base showing the skipper holding the IPS joystick hard astern but as the boat closes in on the pontoon behind, it gently slows and hovers 1.5m away from it. The skipper’s hand never releases the joystick.
Another useful feature is that when the skipper does release the joystick the boat doesn’t just expose itself to the wind and tide because a dynamic positioning system kicks in and holds it in position automatically. So if the skipper is coming into a berth with the software active and wants to hop up to the bow to adjust a fender (which will still be required once in the berth) they can just release the joystick and handle any crewing duties while the computer holds the boat in place.
If single-handed it’s possible to set a tighter perimeter so that the skipper can get off the boat to handle lines and even hang fenders without the worry that the boat is going to move. That’s the idea, anyway. The software is compatible with any modern joystick and fly-by-wire steering system for pods, sterndrives or outboards, and there’s potential for it to be adapted for shaftdrive joysticks further down the line. It can be retrofitted, though camera integration is unlikely to be as neat as when designed in from new. If five cameras are installed there is one at the stern and two down each side, one amidships and one at the bow.
On board, the DockSense app runs via any Raymarine Axiom display, though the larger the screen the more useful the information that is presented will be. The app displays all five camera angles on the screen and an overhead 3D image of the boat is used as another visual aid showing the boat’s proximity to its surroundings.
Prestige is pioneering this technology – an obvious choice given that nearly every boat in the range runs on pod drives – but it doesn’t have exclusive rights, so DockSense will be available on all boats that run Raymarine navigation equipment in due course.
What about the thorny issue of cost? “We are aware that for customers to adopt the technology it needs to work flawlessly but also represent good value,” says Stomberg.
Worth the cost?
Realistically you’re looking in the region of €20-25,000 as an optional extra ticked when specifying the boat, like you would any navigation aid, which may not seem like good value on the face of it but it’s in line with other systems like Volvo’s DPS and Skyhook.
If DockSense lives up to the claims it looks to be a far superior system but of course we will reserve judgment until we’ve tried it first hand. If in a stiff breeze and ripping tide the software can cushion the boat into a tight berth without touching the sides Raymarine could really be on to something with this technology.
Most will confess that berthing is the most stressful aspect of owning a boat and many have been put off by bad experiences. In our view anything that takes the sting out of close quarters manoeuvres is a good thing, especially for new owners or those looking to upgrade.
Volvo bought an Azimut 68S to test and demonstrate its new self-docking system. Jon Mendez tests the new technology at
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