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The Future of Sailing Technology: The Rise of the Robots

Sailing has always relied on the knowledge and skills of the sailor at the helm, however, with advances in technology, the sailing industry is poised for a major change in the way sailing is performed and the requirements of the crew.

The development of advanced and integrated systems, such as GPS, AIS, weather apps and electronic charts, has been quickly making it easier for sailors to navigate and find their way on the water. The integration of technologies such as solar panels and wind/water generators, water makers, and star link internet is making it possible to sail longer, farther and more efficiently. But all that is just the tip of the iceberg. The definition of sailing is in question as new technologies and artificial intelligence evolves.

So what future tech do we see changing sailing?

Autonomous Sailing

With the advent of artificial intelligence the most disruptive technology we see in the industry is sailboats that sail themselves. Some experts believe that it will be possible in the not to distant future for systems to be developed that handle sail trim, reefing, and other tasks, making sailing more autonomous. Not just for the super yachts.

Whatever your opinion of that is, autonomous sailing is not far behind the advancements made in self-driving cars. In recent years, the technology behind autonomous vehicles has seen significant progress, and these developments have inspired the sailing industry to explore the potential of autonomous sailing. The autonomous systems used in cars, such as advanced sensors, cameras, and GPS navigation, are all key components of autonomous sailing as well. By incorporating these technologies, the sailing industry is working to create autonomous boats that can sail safely and efficiently without human intervention. This opens up new opportunities for sailors and makes sailing more accessible to a wider audience, including those who may not have the experience or skills to sail a boat manually.

So that said the "benefits" of autonomous sailing could arguably include increased safety, more efficient operation, less skill required, and the ability to operate in more remote or dangerous waters. (Yes, I realize what I just said. Bring on the daggers.)

There are several manufacturers in the sailing industry that are working towards autonomous sailing. Some of the leading companies include:

  1. Saildrone: A California-based company that specializes in the design and manufacture of autonomous sailing drones for ocean research and data collection.

  2. SeaDrive: A Norwegian company that develops autonomous sailing systems for commercial and leisure vessels.

  3. NavSim: A German company that provides simulation and software solutions for the maritime industry, including autonomous sailing systems.

  4. Windward: An Israeli start-up that uses AI and machine learning to optimize and automate sailing performance.

Of course the idea of an autonomous sailboat may be exciting for some, but sailing purists will certainly be repulsed by the idea that technology will perform the sailing. They understandably believe that sailing is a sport that requires skill, knowledge, and experience, and that technology should be used to enhance the sailing experience, not replace it.

And as exciting as the prospect of autonomous sailing may be for some, there is significant risk. The technology used to manage the operation of a sailboat as described will depend on power. When that power fails, the sailor will still need to know what to do, and this is where the knowledge and skills of the sailor remain important. This is why many experts believe that sailing should always be performed with a human at the helm, even if the technology is available.

It also clearly takes the art of sailing out of the sailing. (But of course some argued that when autopilots came onboard.)

It is a technology that will certainly not be embraced by most sailors I know, but as more newcomers migrate to sailing, these technologies are sure to be embraced as a means of bypassing the traditional skills and training needed for the sailboats of yesterday.

If this reality comes to fruition, licensing and/or training requirements may become a necessary component to operate a boat.

So while the industry may be seeing many exciting possibilities and opportunities to alleviate the crew of the skills needed to sail a boat, it is important for them to consider the risks and that the technology might be better used to enhance the sailing experience, not replace it.


Mike D. is the founder of Sail Junky Magazine. Striving to find more purpose in life, Mike writes and shares about his journey to rediscover his passion for living a fulfilled life, especially through the medium of sailing.

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