Artificially Intelligent Sailing Yachts in the Near Future?

Helming a Classic Swan is rewarding, but will we do it in the same way in the future?

Helming a Classic Swan is rewarding, but will we do it in the same way in the future?

The Future is Fast and Artificially Intelligent

Imagine foiling up the West Coast of Sweden doing 38 knots onboard your cruising yacht. Passing the picturesque fishing villages of Marstrand, Smögen and Fjällbacka suddenly deciding to have lunch in Skagen on the very northerly point of Denmark. Blasting back across the Skagerak into Skagen to have dinner at the historic Brondums Hotel a few hours later. That could be true today if you are in a helicopter or small aircraft. Sailing that distance on a whim would, in a ordinary sailboat, takes the whole day and the restaurant would surely be closed upon arrival.

With technology comes fewer compromises

The three most important parameters for choosing a cruising yacht are speed, economy and comfort. Old salts will tell you over and over again that the three are impossible to have at the same time. As in, you can not have a cheap boat that is fast and comfortable. Nor can you buy a fast boat that is comfortable and cheap. And so on. There will always be compromises between the three.

But, technology can lessen the compromise. So can the Internet of Things and Big Data. A look in the crystal ball reveals that a revolution is going on. Much of what we think of as future tech, is here and now tech. We believe the cruising boat will have much in common with your iPhone in the future. We are of course talking about voice control, sensors, firmware and ways to let systems talk to each other inside and outside the boat. Instead of talking to Siri, you will be talking to your boat. And, if you are an inexperienced sailor, easy to use software will enhance your cruise based on different parameters such as the weather and what destinations you want to visit. 


On the 34th Americas Cup, a fact box read that the 72 ft catamaran (team New Zealand) reached a top speed of 47.57 knots in 21.8 knots of wind. The average downwind speed was between 32 and 37 knots. Upwind average speed was 16-21 knots.

Sailing in speeds of up to 50 knots is evidently intriguing, but perhaps of little use for the harmonious cruiser who does not want a bunch of well trained Kiwis cycling the hydraulics in the port side hull. 

Yet, speed is relevant. Speed means range and arguably adresses a safety concern. You can sail away from uncomfortable weather systems and get to your destinations faster. But at the same time putting more stress on the boat and its crew. Surely, a cruise at 6 knots may be more comfortable than blasting away on foils at 40 knots?

Does it have to be like that? Soon, as technology progresses, a cruise at 50 knots may be as easy on the bones as cruising onboard a Dreamliner at 30 000 feet.

Emirates Team New Zealand Photo by Emirates Team New Zealand/Richard Hodder

Emirates Team New Zealand Photo by Emirates Team New Zealand/Richard Hodder

Racing technology has always trickled down to production cruisers. In the near future, perhaps more production yards will find ways to add foiling technology and stabilisers to make it possible for a normal production cruiser to reach speeds way beyond hull speed. In fact, hull speed may no longer be a frase designers work from as foils and cavitation are more relevant criteria. If engineers can find ways to automate and let computers take care of the job formerly held by the cycling kiwis, it would create for really fast passages.

Less complicated rigging

We are certain that we will be rid of shrouds soon. A stand alone aerodynamic mast, with up to ten integrated sails, built of some brilliant strong composite. If fact, we believe the mast and the sails will become one unit. Where built in technology will allow sails be trimmed to optimum by computers stacked with data and information about wind and weather.


A Boeing 787 Dreamliner will set you back US$ 306.1 million. Carbon is expensive, but I recon the cost in the future will be hardware and software to run onboard systems. Imagine the whole boat run by powerful computers. Where options in the price list is not really about which GPS and thicker mattresses in the forward cabin or expensive sails, but more what kind of software package you need. Expect 50% or more of the total purchasing price to be about digital technology in the yacht of the future. 

The yacht will, to a large degree, be operated from a screen, alongside multiple other screens like smart phones or smart watches. Sensors and big data will automate the rest based on number of sources and sensors. The entire yacht will be wireless of course and expect every component onboard to have some sort of combined sensor/transponder built into it to feed instant relevant data into the main computer.


Comfort is not only about recliners in the main cabin or length of the cockpit benches. They are also about heeling, sound and motion control. I expect to see advanced stabilisation technology find its way into cruising boats. Rapid systems for shifting ballast or stabilisers built into the hull, keels and rudders. The key may even be found in the mast and rig as they are a major contributor to stability. 

Other systems providing comfort onboard are heaters and air conditioners. They will be controlled by monitoring the actual human presence. No use in letting the heater run if no one is in the aft cabin. Over time the system will monitor and gather data based on movements and use. Say for instance, the captain usually turn in at 22:00 at sea. The system will then heat or cool the owners cabin prior to this. In any case, the systems will allow for a very economical use of air conditioners and heater, thus controlling and reducing the use generator/fuel and the need for power. This is already technology in use for private homes and should be put to use onboard smaller yachts soon.

Artificial Intelligence and Smart Yachts

A Smart Yacht would be a yacht which is capable to react ‘intelligently’ by anticipating, predicting and taking decisions with signs of autonomy in order to offer improved habitual and technological/manual support to its crew and therefore an improved quality of life for them. We are already seeing traces of things to come from autopilots and other systems.

Artificial Intelligence can bring the growing area of Smart Yachts to a higher level of functionality where yachts themselves can proactively help their crews in an intelligent way. The development of Smart Yachts should be further encouraged to become an active research area for designers and yards. Because, the demand is already growing faster than the industry can supply.

Making berthing and anchoring safer and automatic

A scenario many can relate to is anchoring. Imagine saying to the onboard voice controlled unit; "Find a place to anchor now". The system will then begin processing the command by starting the radar, AIS and depth sounder to scan the surroundings. It will then input weather forecast and information on tides together and adjust for windage etc. You can also ask to anchor near the service pier or where water is found, or ask for the most quiet and secluded spot in the bay.

At just the right moment the autopilot will take the yacht upwind and release the anchor. It will then pay out as much chain as necessary. It will then deploy the onboard underwater drone while you put on your VR Glasses. You can then do a visual inspection of the anchor on the seabed.

A system will then carefully monitor that the yacht remains in position. You could choose to have this set to auto or manual. If the boat is dragging during the night the automatic system will then heave the anchor, start the engine and reposition the yacht. Or an alarm could sound and you could do it yourself. Night mode is of course active and your VR glasses are turned into IR night googles. The same with the cameras in the mast that swipe the surroundings together with radar and AIS and other proximity sensors.


Another scenario is under sail. The polars have been carefully put in to the system to allow for advanced trimming and course adjustment. The sails will then trim or reef automatically to give the best performance towards your waypoint. Ballast and or other stabilising gadgets will automatically shift to the windward side. In the near future one can probably see self setting spinnakers and even trysails. All constantly adjusting to windspeed and direction, currents and motion.

Other systems can be monitoring and checking your water and fuel levels and give notice not only that tanks are getting empty, but also find the nearest filling station based on range under power. Your engine will of course be connected to the same online monitoring system allowing the engine itself to send diagnostics to your shore based service crew that already are on the way to fix the issues at hand. 

Virtual Reality

Prepare for a passage by firstly enjoying it from the comforts of your armchair. Putting on a pair of VR on the members of the family or crew to take them through the passage or race and plan every step. This might take away the very essence of adventure for some, while providing exceptional tools for education and safety precautions for others.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau Photo by

Jacques-Yves Cousteau Photo by

There are plenty of YouTube audiences who will shiver in joy at the very thought of joining their favourite YouTube cruisers around the world. Imagine La Vagabonde or SV Delos bringing onboard 360 VR cameras to give their viewers an immersive experience? For designers and yards, VR bring about an extraordinary opportunity to try and test designs before building a mould.

It gives marketeers a fantastic possibilities to show customers around and changing configurations in real time. Cutting cost for those very expensive boat shows. Hey, you can even give the customers full admission to the entire 360 suite to virtually build their own boat. And then take it for a spin across the Atlantic -without leaving home!

Environmental Issues

Sailing yachts are inherently sort of climate friendly. Carbon footprint can be further reduced by electric engines and other solutions. Not only does the diesel engine pollute, but the entire infrastructure on shore are contributing. Yards are the biggest sinners and much can be done through legislation, but more importantly: If changes are coming from the customer base, they offer a better chance to become reality. The chemists will come up with an effective and non polluting way to deal with antifouling. Waste management will be top priority with built in systems for dealing with all discharges a yacht can produce including plastic. Think of a Yacht with its own miniature recycle plant onboard.

Electricity Generation

Harvesting of power and its management is the headache of the sailing world. More electronic gadgets and technology will require more energy. Or, must it? 

Malø Yacht NADA in Sweden. Photo by Daniel Novello

Malø Yacht NADA in Sweden. Photo by Daniel Novello

Battery technology is getting better and the solar industry is developing very fast. Who would have thought the Tesla would become such a success only a few years ago? The Elon Musk of yachting is already born and just needs to be found and nurtured. Hey, we are confident fully electric driven yachts are on its way to the mass market right now. Look out for them at next years Virtual Yacht Shows.

Drones and cameras

You will be able to launch your own private underwater drone to check if your anchor holds or if you have damages to the hull. You can go on adventures under water with VR glasses to educate and entertain and contribute to an understanding of the underwater world. The airborne drones will be used to transporting items from ship to ship and ship to shore. Send the drone to check in and deal with the formalities when arriving in a foreign port. 

Medical Emergencies

Track and monitor medical issues offshore. All crew members will automatically send vital data through their smart watches during passages. A satellite based wifi will let you plug and play a land based doctor and a robot can administer medicine and provide treatment. Even smaller surgeries can be done remotely at sea. If not, certainly via video link to the operating theatre on land.

Health and Exercise

Expect to see more apps and software to help the crew stay fit during a cruise. Your regime with training as you step onboard with exercises tailor made to the yacht and condition of the crew onboard. Check blood sugar levels and start preparing nutritious meals individually made for each crew member.


There are several 1984 scenarios in these predictions. At the same time, there has never been an exiting time for sailors. Technology can be implemented wisely to our common benefit and give way to an even richer and stronger experience at sea. That`s what we all want isn't it?


All yachts will have a panic button. Placed in strategic places onboard and on smart phones and smart watches. The button will have multiple uses. One use would be to replace all of the VHF/DSC/SRC/GMDSS/EPIRB/SART systems and combine them into one. Based on the nature of the emergency, it will transmit either via the mobile network, VHF or satellite.  

All your licenses, ships documents and data is stored in the cloud and It will of course make sure that your licensing dues are all payed via your online banking on time.

Another use of the panic button could be a sudden evasive manoeuvre. If an object is seen in the water ahead by a crew member and the monitoring systems have failed to detect and avoid, the panic button will shut down all systems allowing the crew to take full manual control over the yacht.

Going aground will be a thing of the past. Advanced forward and rear facing sonars and sensors will detect any rocks of banks way ahead, warn and adjust the course. The same with sailing heights under bridges. 

American military inspecting the worlds fastest navy warship, built in Norway. KNM Steil. Photo by Daniel Novello

American military inspecting the worlds fastest navy warship, built in Norway. KNM Steil. Photo by Daniel Novello

The panic system is also an integrated fire and gas alarm constantly monitoring the entire yacht and its systems. If propane or toxic fumes from a fire in the engine room is detected, the system automatically alerts the emergency services and coast guard with real time data and information on the health of the crew members via the health monitoring system built in all watches.

The end of piracy?

The system will of course handle burglars and pirates. First line of defence are intelligent locks that are so strong and alter their very construction if a thief tries to brake into the boat or a locker. A silent alarm will set off and at the same time a live video stream from the yacht starts at the coast guard, police and insurance company. Face recognition and scanning of fingerprints are already underway to the police while the burglars are trying to open the companionway hatch. 

Man over board

A man over board situation will be handled automatically. The crew members wrist watch will detect that its owner has fallen overboard. The system will then instantly go into recovery mode. Automatically turning the yacht around, reducing sail, alerting rescue services, locating and start navigating towards the crewmember, put the search lights on and start heating the cabin in case of hypothermia and connecting the doctor on call at the shore based hospital to advice once the crew member is safely onboard.

And, last but not least, the boom will have sensors that will stop a gybe if a crew members head is in danger of being hit. This system will sell as hot cakes!

Better and smarter insurance

Insurance companies will be offering devices to track and reward prudent sailors. If you are one of those sailors who put good distance between your yacht and shallow waters in the chart plotter and nav software, if you put out your fenders well in time and follow the service intervalls on your engine and rig, this can be put in to some monitor software that sends reward data to your underwriter to lower your premium.

And of course, the opposite for the sloppy and careless among us. Expect a lot more on board devices to gather data that can be used to optimise time on the water, but also benefit the owners in form of lowering the cost of boat ownership. Of course all your certificates and courses along with experience data will be uploaded as well to provide the most accurate data. Even fingerprint or biometric data will be harvested to know who is doing what onboard. The days where you could blame an inexperienced crewmember will be lost once the data says you were the one that plotted a particularly risky passage, ignored the forecast or failed to reduce sail when the wind was predicted to pick up. 

Sharing of data

You can, when buying a new yacht decide if you want your data to be shared with the yard and other identical yachts. The strengths of big data are in the word "big" Since the systems onboard are intelligent, the means they have a learning curve. Valuable data from a circumnavigator or someone who races the yacht every Wednesday can be shared with others who do not use their yacht as often. By sharing data from the super sailors, they can add thousands of miles of "experience" to their systems. Data from yachts who often lay idle can also have value to others such as engines manufacturers engines.

Naval architects and boatbuilders may be at risk of loosing their jobs, but not necessarily in the way you think

The future of any job lies in asking a single question: to what extent is that job reducible to frequent high volume tasks? Inside a high volume production factory there would be tens of thousands of tasks that can be done by machines. And they are already at work. Many yards have automated much of the boat building process, however, there is a difference between that and Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. While in AI, devices would carry out tasks in a way humans consider smart, ML or Machine Learning is an application of AI where machines are given certain data and they learn for themselves. MI is actually a subset of AI. Both would be applicable in different stages of design and building process. I wonder what the design would look like if you put the data from every yacht race winner from the past 100 years to design the ultimate yacht? 

Again, how companies and the staff adapt is key. It is a good chance a yard, an electronics company or a Naval Architect will benefit from the business aspect of data collection. Say, if a high volume production yacht builder have massive amounts of data, a start up company can buy into that data. A Naval Architect can ask for trending topics in the feedback data from yacht owners. The staff can delegate low value tasks to AI so they can be more productive in their main skill.

Companies must, however, rethink every part of their strategy and figure out how they can benefit from the ongoing development such as accelerating the development of new products and increase innovation in several areas. They must constantly push the supply chain into the same track.

Innovation comes in mysterious ways. Photo by Daniel Novello

Innovation comes in mysterious ways. Photo by Daniel Novello

Problems with artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the internet of things in the yachting industry

The fundamental issue with machine learning is that they can`t handle things they haven`t seen many times before. If access to past data is sparse, the machines will have trouble figuring out what to do. Human beings have the capability to solve problems they have never seen before. But, AI is catching up and that can be a bit scary.

In an article in the MIT Technology Review called The Dark Secret at the heart of AI, Will Knight writes

"Last year, a strange self-driving car was released onto the quiet roads of Monmouth County, New Jersey. The experimental vehicle, developed by researchers at the chip maker Nvidia, didn’t look different from other autonomous cars, but it was unlike anything demonstrated by Google, Tesla, or General Motors, and it showed the rising power of artificial intelligence. The car didn’t follow a single instruction provided by an engineer or programmer. Instead, it relied entirely on an algorithm that had taught itself to drive by watching a human do it.

Getting a car to drive this way was an impressive feat. But it’s also a bit unsettling, since it isn’t completely clear how the car makes its decisions. Information from the vehicle’s sensors goes straight into a huge network of artificial neurons that process the data and then deliver the commands required to operate the steering wheel, the brakes, and other systems. The result seems to match the responses you’d expect from a human driver.

But what if one day it did something unexpected—crashed into a tree, or sat at a green light? As things stand now, it might be difficult to find out why. The system is so complicated that even the engineers who designed it may struggle to isolate the reason for any single action. And you can’t ask it: there is no obvious way to design such a system so that it could always explain why it did what it did.

The car’s underlying AI technology, known as deep learning, has proved very powerful at solving problems in recent years, and it has been widely deployed for tasks like image captioning, voice recognition, and language translation. There is now hope that the same techniques will be able to diagnose deadly diseases, make million-dollar trading decisions, and do countless other things to transform whole industries."

No-one to blame is something goes wrong?

When, not if, a yacht runs aground or sails right into a another ship, it would be impossible for the investigators to find out what really happened. Being able to interrogate an AI system about how it reached its conclusions should be a fundamental legal right. Starting in the summer of 2018, the European Union may require that companies are able to give users an explanation for decisions that automated systems reach. But, what if the systems can`t?

As of 2018 no AI system is able to explain how it reached its decision. So, we are a long way from having truly interpretable AI.

Artificial Intelligence may be hard to trust for sailors in the future. And we can imagine all sorts of legal issues. We should all embrace AI, but for the time being,  we should be as cautious of AI explanations as we are of each other’s—no matter how clever a machine seems. Lots of talk about technology will not alter the fact that everything is about people.