AI Startup Receives $900k for Self-Driving Boats

Founded in 2015 by University at Buffalo students makes significant progress toward self-driving boats

April 2018 Feature, News

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Automation, an artificial intelligence startup developing technology for self-navigating boats, has secured $900,000 in seed funding from investors which exceeds their target of $700,000.

“Self-navigation technology will increase safety,” Buffalo Automation CEO and co-founder Thiru Vikram says, “by preventing vessel collisions and other accidents such as oil spills that devastate the environment and cost billions in losses. We can also prevent what are known in the maritime industry as allisions, where ships collide with stationary objects, such as docks or canal walls. The damage is usually not newsworthy, but such incidents still cost ship operators many thousands of dollars in repairs and lost revenues every year. All this can be avoided.”

The investments will enable the company to expand pilots of its innovative product — a system called AutoMate that integrates real-time sensor data about waterways with static information such as nautical charts to enable vessels to pilot themselves.

“This is a state-of-the-art system that can see at night, in pitch-black darkness,” Vikram continues. “It’s more accurate than human eyes. We have HD thermal cameras that capture 360 degrees of the surrounding environment. Our neural networks, which have been trained to recognize various types of vessels and navigation signs, help AutoMate make maneuvers compliant with COLREGS and other rules of navigation. It aids the human crew that is operating the ship in making safer and more fuel-efficient decisions.”

The $900,000 in new investment is the latest milestone for Buffalo Automation, which was founded in 2015 by University at Buffalo engineering students. UB has fostered Buffalo Automation’s growth through programs that provide business coaching and encourage entrepreneurship on campus. Mentors from the university guided the company’s early research on autonomous boat technology. Today, the company’s team includes several UB graduates.

“Buffalo Automation is a testament to UB’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship among members of the UB community,” UB Associate Vice President for Economic Development Christina Orsi says. “From its early roots in conducting research on robotic, self-piloting technology to its collaboration with the Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships team at UB and the Western New York Incubator Network (WIN), ideas were nurtured and challenged. Vikram and his team worked alongside seasoned mentors, experienced entrepreneurs and big thinkers.”

While many  are familiar with the concept of driverless cars, Buffalo Automation aims to bring a version of this technology to the water, improving the safety of freighters and other vessels. Like traditional autopilot systems, it enables ships to chart and navigate a path from one port to another. AutoMate also detects threats along the chosen route, using onboard sensors, cameras and wireless communications-- such as AIS, an automatic identification system for tracking ships --to identify and steer around obstacles. This precision system can detect any size obstacle, ranging from swimmers and recreational boats to other large vessels while maintaining course headings. Radar and LIDAR enables AutoMate to “see” from about five feet around the boat to 24 nautical miles out, and the system can automatically adjust to rough waters, using machine learning and data gathered from ships during challenging maritime conditions.

“Buffalo Automation demonstrates the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of members of the UB community,” Dean of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Liesl Folks says. “Self-driving technology has been an area of intense interest for automakers, and Buffalo Automation saw an opportunity to bring this cutting-edge technology to the water, helping to make vessels of all kinds safer. With support from the university and other partners, the company has developed a promising system that is attracting significant interest in the maritime industry.”

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