The latest boat camera tech uses machine learning to help protect, manoeuvre and navigate our vessels. Sam Fortescue investigates
Boat cameras: tech to keep you safe
Cheap, reliable camera technology is everywhere, from mobile phones to car parking aids, and now, inevitably, on boats.
The capabilities of the camera have developed fast, from a few rows of grainy footage to high-resolution and infrared night vision technology.
And now boats are benefiting from this leap forward, coupled with the ever-increasing bandwidth of marine network protocols like NMEA.
The use cases on board fall under three broad headings. Most obviously, perhaps, there is the security element – remote monitoring of the boat using a video camera feed.
Then there is docking assistance technology, which is mostly focused in the motorboat sector, but can provide a welcome boost on sailing boats too.
And right at the cutting edge, there is collision avoidance and search-and-rescue, such as the award-winning OSCAR.
While this technology might be the domain of high-budget solo racing boats at the moment, it is the ‘extra pair of eyes’ element that will appeal to cruising sailors, who often also sail shorthanded, if not solo.
Boat cameras: security first
When remote boat monitoring first emerged, the idea was to get a narrow band of critical safety data ashore.
That meant the capability of transmitting a few kilobytes of information relating to the bilge pump, water levels, GPS position and battery voltage.
The technology has matured, and new applications are constantly being developed. Some remote monitor units are two-way, and can switch on the boat’s instruments for a short burst to measure wind speed and depth, or to turn the fridge or heating on prior to arrival.
Others have developed a whole suite of sensors to cover security – reed switches on hatch frames and infrared motion detectors.
This is all still relatively low bandwidth, though, with detection tripping an alarm message and maybe a short burst of data. The advent of fast 4G mobile telephony has changed that.
We are used to sending photos and streaming videos on the move, and the remote monitor in your boat can do the same, at very low cost.
All you need is a compatible boat camera on board.
Canada’s BRNKL remote monitor (£999.95) was an early developer of getting security photos off the boat.
When an intruder is detected, the unit automatically sends a photo to your phone. And you can access a live image at any time by touching a button on the app.
‘We have had a number of sailors catch burglars on their boats using the BRNKL security system, including boats in North America and Europe,’ says founder Brandon Wright.
‘The camera has not only been used for security, but also to check on weather conditions at the boat and of course to show off to friends!’
Yacht Sentinel has taken the idea a step further with its Sentinel Cam 2 (£459), which shoots HD video (1080p standard). The wireless camera has been specially engineered for efficiency, drawing just 400mA of current and consuming less than 100MB of data each month – well within the limits of a cheap sim card.
You can plug the camera into boat power on a 12v system, or leave it to run for up to six months on its own internal battery.
When coupled with a 4G WiFi router, it will shoot a burst of 30 seconds of video when an alarm goes off, or on demand.
‘Following the trend of smart security systems equipping more and more houses worldwide, we believe Sentinel Cam… will soon become a critical piece of equipment for anyone wishing to monitor a boat at an affordable price,’ explained Sentinel CEO Romain Devismes.
BRNKL is on a similar path, having just launched a new unit that will log up to 4TB of video and data. It is compatible with major camera brands, and can stream the output to users via a remote monitoring subscription.
The main limitation for all brands is bandwidth.
CCTV cameras can manage 4K video quality and better – in line with the latest TVs. But these systems are normally hardwired, because you need a very fast connection speed for detailed images.
Using 4G to transfer such weighty video would only work if you had a perfect connection.
Most digital boat cameras use a much smaller sensor capable of 720p or 1080p video. Added to that, images are heavily compressed by the camera’s software, further reducing bandwidth requirements.
This is key for true global monitoring, which can fall back on a satellite connection when the boat is off the grid.
‘Axis Communications cameras offer enhanced compression algorithms like Zipstream, where we have seen a 90% reduction in required throughput on video that to the naked eye has the exact same quality,’ says BRNKL’s Wright.
‘I can foresee video monitoring becoming more economical over satellite communications such as Starlink or even lower-bandwidth Iridium NEXT networks. The challenge comes when trying to stream live video feeds.’
It is a challenge with which the industry is grappling – hoping to deliver that other great benefit of remote monitoring: remote diagnostics.
Separately to security, live video has the power to allow expert technicians to spot and fix problems without ever setting foot on the boat.
‘In the military and industrial markets that we operate in, we have seen a lot of use cases for Augmented Reality (AR) where the on-board service people wear glasses that live stream video back to a service centre,’ explains Wright.
‘This is certainly the next generation of technical support where even the most junior marine electrician can have support from someone halfway around the world when they’re trying to troubleshoot a device on a boat.’
Big marine electronics manufacturers like Garmin and Raymarine are also busy in the camera market. Garmin’s GC100 transmits its footage over wireless and costs £360, and its higher-spec GC200 is £500.
Both have infrared modes and consume 210-370mA depending on whether the IR is on. Raymarine’s CAM210 and CAM220 offer similar specs for around the £500 mark.
They are not yet capable of easy integration into a remote monitoring system, but it is something both brands are working on now.
These cameras are more useful for boat owners wanting to keep an eye on different parts of the boat while on board, such as the engine compartment, or the extremities of the boat.
‘These can be set up to provide a view of wherever they are mounted, such as forward-facing from the bow, or downward-facing from the mast to give a full view of the foredeck area,’ says Peter Ingram at Raymarine.
Both Raymarine and Garmin are also vying for the lead when it comes to using cameras to help manoeuvre the boat at close quarters.
These are typically small, embedded units mounted in the topsides or bulwarks by the manufacturer, although they could also be retrofitted professionally (they need precise alignment and set-up so are not suitable currently for DIY).
They feed their images back to a black-box processor, which supplies the MFD with a useful visual representation to guide the skipper
in a port or marina.
Garmin’s Surround View uses six cameras to render the display from a bird’s eye perspective, giving you incredible situational awareness. It will also give you the classic reversing-car view, complete with a scale showing how far away the pontoon really is.
Raymarine’s system is called DockSense, and uses up to five cameras to show you the obstacles around the boat. It must be paired with precise heading sensors.
‘DockSense Alert cameras are suitable for larger boats with restricted vision from the helm,’ continues Ingram at Raymarine. ‘They would be suitable for catamarans for example, where they would provide a view and alerts to a captain, of objects next to the hull.’
It jockeys the engine and bow-thruster to do with this, and applies a ‘virtual fender’ – a configurable zone immediately around the hull.
It could in theory be installed on a sailing boat, according to Ingram, although you would need a complex propulsion system.
‘The engines and thrusters need to be able to move the boat forwards/backwards, side to side and also to rotate it. There are various methods of doing this, but a single-shaft drive vessel would require bow- and stern-thrusters.’
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Raymarine’s camera system can also be used to improve the skipper’s situational awareness under way. Annotating the image with key AIS and chart data, it is something that appeals to the more ‘tech adventurous’ sailor.
Known as ‘augmented reality’, the system is called ClearCruise and requires one of Raymarine’s new Axiom MFDs.
‘The classic daytime example is when a camera is able to see where the mainsail is obstructing vision, so on busy waterways a sailor can confidently maintain course with full view, through the camera, of the leeward side,’ says Ingram.
‘The Augmented Reality (AR) shows the AIS information of vessels and colour codes vessels which may cross paths (in red) making it easier for a captain to spot obstacles. It also helps holding a course as the waypoint is displayed on the camera, so a captain can steer for the waypoint object on the screen.’
And when combined with a FLIR infrared camera, ClearCruise will also help spot obstacles at night.
A unit like the FLIR M232 may have a very low resolution compared to a visual camera, but it is able to spot ‘non-water’ objects such as buoys or navigation marks and highlight them on screen to the helmsperson.
Range varies, but in ideal conditions, it would spot an MOB from 40-50m out and a 10m boat from 500m away. You can also set up an audible alert.
Discerning obstacles in the water is incredibly intensive work for a machine, and the best performance requires a dedicated processor.
This is the path that OSCAR has gone down, combining optical and infrared cameras at the masthead with thousands of hours of machine learning using IBM supercomputers.
The number crunching has allowed the team at OSCAR to set up algorithms that can spot the patterns of visible and invisible light associated with a hazard that is floating or awash.
OSCAR comes in different variants, but its Offshore 640 has a five-megapixel camera and eight times the thermal resolution of Flir’s M323.
Using state-of-the-art Nvidia graphics chips, it can spot a small boat 1.5km ahead and an MOB 150m away.
Objects down to around one square metre can be reliably picked up at the lower range, although glare from the water’s surface makes it more marginal when something is awash or just submerged.
‘On every boat that already has AIS and radar, this is the next revolutionary technology for safety,’ says OSCAR’s Solenn Gouerou.
‘The technology has become a lot smarter since its first launch. Each software update (twice a year) brings smarter detection and especially smarter identification, as the neural network is being trained with more data collected from our users.’
It doesn’t come cheap, at around £26,000, but won plaudits from Vendée Globe sailors Sam Davies and Boris Herrmann.
High-end catamaran builder Outremer recently added OSCAR to its options list. OSCAR aims to fill in the blind spots of existing technologies, identifying hazards that are not transmitting on AIS or too small to generate a useful radar reflection, such as fishing floats, icebergs, shipping containers or other floating objects.
Of course, the ultimate destination for this sort of technology is a boat that can navigate safely without sustained human input.
It is the direction of travel in the shipping industry, and numerous start-ups are racing to develop a reliable system on smaller boats too.
‘We collaborate with autopilot manufacturers and other sensor makers to develop this capability,’ says Gouerou. ‘This is a long-term objective to us and many actors of the industry.’
In fact, unmanned autonomous vessels (UAVs – they prefer to call themselves ‘vehicles’ for insurance purposes) are already a reality.
There are fleets of them patrolling fisheries, territorial waters and collecting weather data mid-ocean.
Mayflower is one of the larger projects, combining the expertise of Plymouth University and IBM’s colossal machine learning clout.
The boat suffered an old-fashioned mechanical problem with the exhaust last year and has just set out again after repairs – but its navigation systems have proven themselves the equal of the task.
It uses a blend of six cameras, radar, AIS and lidar (Light Detection and Ranging), similar to radar but using laser rather than radio waves, to identify other vessels or obstacles.
And the platform could revolutionise the way humans handle boats at sea.
‘I think that the most likely broad uptake of smart camera systems, and AI/machine learning systems is on pleasure craft,’ says Brett Phaneuf, co-director of the Mayflower project.
‘It would provide assistance to human operators to do things like dock/berth, and also to avoid accidents or incidents at sea. When coupled in a strong ‘data fusion’ with radar and AIS, computer vision systems can detect, classify and track obstacles (other boats, swimmers, paddle boards, etc) and make recommendations to human operators. Particularly when human operators are distracted or stressed, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture… while the AI/ML/CV system is monitoring the entire situation without fail.’
In fact, the use of lidar could finally banish the unmonitorable zone just below the surface of the sea. Echo soundings are confused by the bubbles at the water’s surface, while cameras can be taken in by reflections above it.
Looking through air and water alike, lidar might be able to spot objects that are awash, like the mythical waterlogged container.
But we are a long way from such a system, and even technology giants like Alphabet are still experimenting with it.
So, what lies in the more immediate future? Well, everything about cameras is going to improve, according to Sentinel’s Devismes.
‘I expect cameras to have higher IP ratings [waterproofing], lower prices, lower battery consumption (two years on battery power – so 100% wireless – would be great) and improved PIR (passive infrared) for detection with very, very rare false detection.’
Integration between different camera systems should also improve, allowing one app to handle security and situational awareness.
‘As connected boat solutions monitoring boat safety and NMEA data continue to develop, I expect cameras to be more integrated into global connected boat solutions rather than sold on a standalone basis,’ he adds.
Types of boat cameras
- Analogue: A hard-wired video camera, which broadcasts an analogue signal that must be processed by another unit – like an MFD or a recording device. Analogue boat cameras are cheaper, but they lack on-board image enhancement or processing, so image quality can be lower too.
- Digital: These are usually smarter cameras, that convert analogue images directly into digital files. Some include WiFi, so you can transfer the images to an MFD or a smart device. Others use a standard serial cable connection.
- IP: These are digital cameras with an internet IP address, which means their settings and content can be accessed remotely. So, you can switch them on from your phone and stream just the last minute of video. Usually better image quality and more expensive.
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