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A yacht that pilots itself

Shane Nolan, left, and Alex Zhitelzef, UB engineering students who co-founded Buffalo Automation Group, test their technology at Baird Point on Lake LaSalle. Photo: Douglas Levere.

By CORY NEALON

Published October 8, 2015

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Driverless technology is making inroads in maritime shipping, search-and-rescue operations and security work. But it has been absent from recreational boating.
That is changing.

With Google building driverless cars, it was inevitable that businesses would attempt the same with boats.

Less probable, however, is that one of these companies, a robotics startup called Buffalo Automation Group, consists of three UB undergraduate engineering students.

Since forming last year, Buffalo Automation Group has successfully tested its technology on a 16-foot catamaran, filed two provisional patent applications and secured thousands of dollars in funding.

“The success we’ve had illustrates there is a market for safe, highly effective and easy-to-use marine autopilot systems that provide recreational boat owners with well-deserved peace of mind,” says company CEO Thiru Vikram, who expects to earn a computer science degree from UB this spring.

Co-founders include Shane Nolan, chief operating officer (electrical engineering, class of 2017) and Alex Zhitelzeyf, vice president of product development (mechanical engineering, class of 2016).

Targeting pleasure boaters

The idea of a driverless boat is not new. The Navy is experimenting with teams of small, autonomous boats to protect larger vessels. Rolls-Royce has unveiled designs for an unmanned cargo ship. There’s even an annual robotic sailing contest.

Buffalo Automation Group sets itself apart by focusing on pleasure boats.

Each year, there are hundreds of fatalities and thousands of injuries nationwide due to recreational boating accidents, according to U.S. Coast Guard data. Buffalo Automation Group wants to reduce those numbers through use of its technology. The company is targeting small yachts and inboard boats up to 40 feet long.

“These are vessels that are big enough for a family to spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks on the water. But they’re often too small to hire a crew, or even junior captain, so the captain must keep constant vigil over the boat,” Nolan says.

Like airplanes, many of these boats have an autopilot option. The problem, Zhitelzeyf says, is that these systems are reactive, meaning that they respond only after the boat senses a change in tide, wind or other conditions.

The technology that Buffalo Automation Group is developing — a combination of sensors, cameras, wireless-communication systems and other devices — is predictive, meaning it will fuse real-time data, such as weather conditions and obstacles in the water, with nautical charts and other static information to pre-empt anything that poses a threat to the boat and its course of direction.

Designed for new and used vessels, the system would dock the boat and allow the captain, at any time, to easily regain control over the boat. It also has the potential to reduce insurance costs.

“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,” Zhitelzeyf says.

How they got started

Each co-founder grew up interested in robotics. Vikram began shaping the business idea in early 2014. That spring, he and a separate team of students won third prize at UB’s elevator pitch competition.

Around that time, he approached Nolan, a friend he met at the Academies, an organization at UB that brings together like-minded students. They soon paired up, added Zhitelzeyf and received a research grant from UB’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities.

From there, Buffalo Automation Group was born.

The company, based out of tenX, a co-working space operated by UB’s Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) at Baird Research Park, works under the guidance of Bina Ramanurthy, teaching associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

It received a boost this summer by winning the inaugural Buffalo Student Sandbox, an innovative economic development contest created by WNY Innovation Hot Spot that pays college students to further their respective businesses during the summer.

The co-founders plan to continue to refine the technology — as well as complete their course work — this school year while meeting with potential investors, boat manufacturers and retailers that sell marine electronics.