Buffalo company leading the way in self-driving boat technology

Posted at 4:00 PM, Apr 11, 2018

The race to develop driverless cars has captured a lot of attention around the world, but one company in Buffalo is working to bring that technology to the water.

Buffalo Automation was founded in 2015 by Thiru Vikram, a University at Buffalo student, and a few of his classmates. He's since taken a leave of absence to focus on his business. Understandable, when you consider how far the company has come in three short years.

This all started out as an engineering class project at UB.

"All we were hoping for was an A on that one," Vikram, the company's CEO, said.

But, after he and his team developed a working prototype and garnered interest from shipping executives, it was full steam ahead.

Using thermal cameras, lasers, radar and LIDAR, Buffalo Automation has already equipped ships with its self-driving technology, AutoMate. It works with existing autopilot technology, but can see and react in real time to different obstacles or hazards in the water.

Buffalo Automation has pilot programs with two North American lake freighter operators and one international container liner. On those ships, the captain still navigates the boat while AutoMate learns how to respond to different situations.

"We have encoders that learn, essentially, from the captain," Vikram said. "So if he steers port 40, we want to see how that changes in bad weather. Does he steer port 40 in five seconds? Do he do it in ten seconds? Does he wait? This is all automated, so you don't actually have to program all this stuff. It just learns from that person based on the weather."

Eventually, the technology will be able to safely operate a boat without any active oversight from a human on board, according to Vikram. They plan to roll out conditional automation this summer, which means an operator does not have to pay attention to the environment but needs to be on hand to take control of the vessel.

Shipping companies have shown strong interest in the company, particularly for its effectiveness in promoting safety.

Buffalo Automation won UB's Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition in 2016 and secured a $25,000 investment from Launch NY and Z80 Labs.

The company recently secured $900,000 in seed funding from investors.

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