Volvo Penta advances vessel automation


Last summer, on a sunny late spring day, Capt. Thomas Hansson sat calmly at the controls as his Azimut 68 sport cruiser inched toward the dock at Volvo Penta’s Krossholmen test facility. Never once did his hands touch the throttle or the steering wheel.

The maneuver replicated a similar one conducted during the June 2018 stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race in nearby Gothenburg. Both offer a glimpse into one future of yachting that lets operators delegate unpleasant tasks — such as docking in tight spaces or bad weather — to automated controls.

Those successful demonstrations showed proof of concept. Rather than rush to market, Volvo Penta took feedback generated from these events and went back to the drawing board for further refinement. Since then, the company has focused its automation efforts on creating technology that assists the operator rather than taking full control.

“When you offer assisted functionality, it is useful in many more situations to many more users,” Anders Thorin, product manager electronics with Volvo Penta in Sweden, said in a recent phone interview.

The assisted functionality system, which does not yet have a trade name from Volvo Penta, has several interconnected parts that work together in real time. The system pairs Volvo Penta IPS propulsion and its joystick control system with the dynamic positioning system.

The result is a “predictive” joystick function that lets the vessel come to a dead stop when the operator takes their hand off the joystick, regardless of wind or tidal forces acting on its hull. The system also lets the vessel travel true lines or in the exact direction requested by the operator. In short, users will no longer need to compensate manually for wind or waves.

Volvo Penta, which is based in Gothenburg and has its U.S. headquarters in Chesapeake, Va., envisions this system coming in handy when maneuvering in tight spaces, in difficult weather or when docking.

“The value of this is it will give them precision and confidence in any situation where it is narrow and crowded, and where you would benefit from a system that can assist you,” Thorin said.

Another concept still in the testing phase offers aerial views of the vessel using cameras mounted along the vessel itself. Aboard the Azimut 68, as it moved toward the dock at Krossholmen, Hansson toggled on a display images from cameras mounted fore, aft and on each side of the vessel. These cameras can display independently to show distances from docks or other objects.

The system goes beyond the maritime equivalent of a vehicle’s backup camera. The components can effectively work together, feeding the image data into a proprietary program that creates a bird’s-eye image of the vessel indicating its proximity to other objects. The Azimut 68 accomplished this with two cameras mounted on the port and starboard sides and one mounted at the bow and stern. This camera system was developed in partnership with Garmin.

Depending on one’s point of view, the self-docking feature is either simpler or much more complicated. The system relies on sensors installed on a stationary object, like a dock, and sensors on the vessel. These sensors communicate in real time to guide the vessel into the berth.

These three systems can work together as needed or be installed separately. They may also be possible to retrofit on existing yachts. While the official target, for now, is the leisure market, Volvo expects to find commercial customers as well.

These systems do not have trade names, and they remain in the testing phase. Details about pricing, and when the systems might reach the U.S. market, are not yet available. But, they show that companies like Volvo Penta are interested in marine automation.

By Ocean Navigator