Self driving cars are the talk of the town these days. So are drones. Self-automated vehicles of all sorts are considered the future of transportation – human travel and product delivery.
Buffalo Automation is a company that has set out to be one of the first to develop this automated technology for boats. According to co-founder Thiru Vikram, all of the other “spaces” in the self-driving vehicle market were occupied, but it looked as if the AI technology for boats was still a relatively untapped frontier.
The Buffalo Automated team originally came together at the University at Buffalo (UB). While none of the members were originally from Buffalo they all stuck around after graduating to work on the business model. They began to implement the technology as a navigational assist for captains of giant Great Lakes freighters – the tech assist acts as a flawless first mate, says Vikram.
Now, the team is looking to roll out their self automated technology via water taxis in harbors throughout the world.
Vikram says that they started to test out the early versions of the automated water crafts on Lake LaSalle (at UB), before moving on to testing grounds at the Erie Canal and connected bodies of water. He and his co-workers started by testing out the logistics of the automated water taxis, before moving on to the propulsion system. The Erie Canal proved to be the ideal testing site for the technology due to the complexity (the twists and turns) of the geographical composition. The thought was, if the water taxis could safely traverse the canal and the connected bodies of water, then implementing the same technology in less complicated harbors would be a breeze. The team has also been working with the Coast Guard, to ensure that everything that they are doing is by the book.
Now, if you’re thinking that automated water taxis sound too complicated and unconventional, just think that the team successfully introduced a version of the technology to lake-bound freighters. These freighters are successfully navigating the lakes and channels (assisting the captain), by way of identifying (and avoiding) objects as small as kayakers. Vikram assured me that if they could do this for giant lake freighters, smaller stern drive conventional water taxis would not present a problem. At the same time, he did say that they would have someone onboard for the initial taxi runs, to instill confidence in passengers as well as operators.
Buffalo Automation utilizes self navigation called AutoMate, which incorporates AI technology, thermal cameras, radar, and machine learning. From dealing with waves, to seeing in the pitch black darkness, to spotting threats from up to 24 nautical miles away, every problematic navigational element has been considered.
While talking to Vikram, I asked him if he intended to launch the first automated taxi at the Buffalo Harbor, and he replied that he was not aware that this city had a need for it. In fact, his team had never paid a visit to the Buffalo waterfront, so they were unaware that anything was going on there. I told him that the waterfront had experiences a renaissance in recent years, which piqued his interest. While this thought excited both of us, I couldn’t help to be baffled that so many UB students still spend the crux of their time on the North Campus, without ever venturing into the city. Something’s got to give someday.
Anyways, the wheels of ingenuity and enterprise are now in motion again in Buffalo. Vikram says that his team will be looking to launch the first water taxi here, instead of one of the other cities that they had been considering. Originally, they had been looking to launch their first automated water taxi in the Netherlands, or at a larger port in a US city. The Buffalo Automation team has already been in talks with potential operators worldwide. “We’re a Buffalo company, and this is where our heart is,” says Vikram. “We have no intention of leaving, we just had no idea that there was a bustling waterfront scene here. That’s why we never considered Buffalo as a city to launch our first water taxi – we always thought it would be a city with a large port.”
Vikram was also not aware that there was an existing water taxi service operating in Buffalo. This tidbit of information really blew his mind. It also changed the entire way that he viewed Buffalo, nautically.
Ultimately, these automated water taxis are not only considered novelties, they are also practical ways to get people from place to place along waterways, not to mention being cost effective. Now that Buffalo is taking full advantage of the Blue Economy, with the new Buffalo Blueway initiative underway, this is the perfect time to launch an automated water taxi service to take people to all of the various access points that are in place. Now, the hunt is on, to find a local operator that is looking to help launch this unique and tech-forward transportation initiative… at a time when we are tasked with limiting human contact.