• Published:February 4, 2019
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Backing into a slip at any marina is stressful.

There's very little room for error and you can't control the environmental aspects like wind, tide and current. One slip on the throttles and you could do some serious damage to your boat, the dock, or your neighbor's vessel.
FLIR, makers of some of the world’s best cameras and thermal-imaging products, also owns Raymarine, and they just introduced an innovative product that literally makes it impossible to bash your boat into the bulkhead.

Raymarine is billing its DockSense assisted docking system as the marine industry’s first “intelligent object recognition and motion sensing assisted docking solution” for boating.

This past week I was able to play around with the new technology onboard a 33-foot Boston Whaler Outrage with twin Verado outboards and Joystick Piloting for Outboards (JPO) at a Mercury Marine event on Lake X in Central Florida. Mercury calls DockSense a natural “next step” for Mercury, which introduced Zeus joystick docking back in 2007.

The DockSense system uses FLIR machine vision camera technology and video analytics to integrate intelligence gathered from surrounding imagery with the vessel’s propulsion and steering. If you get too close to the dock or another object, the system picks it up and blocks the joystick from letting you get any closer. The technology acts much like a car with side cameras and avoidance systems. 

The system establishes what they call a “Virtual Bumper” zone around the vessel. Should an object like a piling or another vessel encounter the Virtual Bumper, DockSense automatically introduces corrective steering and throttle commands to avoid the object. You have to disable it to actually pull up against a dock.

I drive a full-size, four-door pick-up truck and I’ve become very reliant on my back-up camera. If you’re like me and use that screen when you’re backing up up the truck to get the ball right under the boat trailer, you will like DockSense. The Raymarine Axiom display on the boat's dash picks up the feeds from all of the cameras so you can see as a boat or dock comes up on a corner of the boat you can’t see as you focus on backing up or creeping sideways to the dock.

The Boston Whaler we were using had five cameras on it, pointing to the sides, ahead and behind. The way the screen was set up, the camera feeds showed up on the sides of the screen and there was radar in the middle. So, you see the objects on the camera feed first, and then you see them move through the radar. The objects on the radar changed color as they moved out of our way and no longer posed a threat.

DockSense uses GPS and attitude heading reference system (AHRS) position sensing technology to compensate for the effects of wind and currents, ensuring the vessel enters the dock without drama or costly collisions. The Raymarine DockSense system includes multiple FLIR machine vision cameras, a central processing module, and the DockSense App running on Raymarine’s Axiom navigation display. The system integrates with modern joystick propulsion systems, like Mercury's or other systems available, providing assisted steering and throttle commands to help captains make a smooth arrival.

Mercury said its new assisted-docking system is a core technology based on the latest aerospace control systems and autonomous-car artificial intelligence. The system will support a wide variety of future uses for assisted and semi-autonomous functionality, as it can be integrated with sensors like vision systems and lidar.

I found the camera feeds really useful, but it takes a little while to get acquainted with the joystick. The system we tested was using the traditional Mercury JPO joystick and a second control pad for the assisted docking. Timing the period where you get too close to the dock and have to turn off the safety features was a bit awkward at first. However, it’s an extremely cool feature.

I have to admit, I'm sort of Old School and don’t think self-driving cars (or boats) are necessarily a good thing. I see a lot of potential for them in the world, but there’s obviously a lot of bugs to work out. With that said, if we can make docking a boat a fearless endeavor, especially for novice boaters, that would be a huge win for the recreational boating industry. But, these assisted docking programs should come with a big warning (published in ALL CAPS) that makes sure every operator knows how to dock a boat manually, with nothing but shift controls, a steering wheel and throttles. If you completely rely on technology, you’re looking for trouble.

Raymarine DockSense technology is not yet available for purchase but you can demo it at the upcoming Miami International Boat Show in February. To learn more, visit raymarine.com/docksense.