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RS Sailing 2021 - LEADERBOARD

Can your Grandma use FaceTime?

by John Curnow, Global Editor, Powerboat.World 13 Jan 10:00 PST
New age. New boat. New Ideas. Reinventing the recreational boat with software at the helm © Alloy Boats

Perhaps not the most nautical of headlines, but it is definitely of the time, which is kind of the point with Alloy Boats. So if your Grandma can grab the iPad, push the correct buttons, and chat with her grandchildren, then you're really going to get this. If not, then it is still pertinent, if for no other reason than because it unequivocally highlights that anything is possible.

Now when I first got the Alloy Boats material, I did certainly have an extended John DeLorean moment. Silver, disruptive, and avant-garde, were very evident between the pair, and stainless steel is nothing if not an alloy.

OK. Two things to get into quickly. One: Alloy boats are not made in aluminium. They could be in the future, but the first ones are not. The company name reflects very much more the amalgam nature of an alloy, so as to attain certain properties.

Two: We are not hypothesising that Alloy Boats will go the way of the ill-fated DMC, but you could well see a modified one in a movie at some stage or other. As we said in the opening, anything is possible...

Interestingly, even the corporate structure and the human resources nature of the company reflects the description of what a real alloy is. Employing the best person for the job, no matter where they might live, and utilising technology to make it all cohesive.

Founder and CEO Brandon Cotter explains. "My Co-Founder and CTO, Dr Powell Kinney (who is somewhat of a wunderkind), and I are in Dallas, Texas, and a member of our Advisory Board, Naval Architect Drew Orvieto, who is looking after the electric and water jet propulsion system, is near Fort Lauderdale. We've got one of our engineers in New Orleans, and another in Brazil. He's travelling all the time, so it's just that we do not know where exactly on the map he is. We've got one of our industrial designers in Galway, Ireland, and then our primary lead designer is in the north of France."

With an enviable list of brands on his CV, Florida-based co-founder John Dorton brings a wealth of experience and talent to the board, as well. Dorton stated, "I'm advising Alloy Boats on industry trends, production applications, American Boat and Yacht Council/US Coast Guard criteria, and other regulatory matters. Once the boat is in production, I'll assist with manufacturing oversight."

Alloy is absolutely the definition of a modern company, and when you're all about disruption, electric-powered, autonomously enhanced boats, with sensors and cameras, and you're making your own software, so that you govern the boating experience from stem to stern, literally and metaphorically, then you're going to be more of an iPad, and far less of a hole in the water into which you pour money. And Alloy is cool with that.

"That's right. I think what happens is when you're putting together something like this, your number one objective is find the right people. If they happen to be close by, great, but a lot of times they are not. It is just the way the team has come together and it's worked out really well."

The unique open design is obviously meant for closed waters. Durrr. Yet more importantly, the whole thing is about expanding the market, by demystifying the entire process. Consider that not all that long ago you docked by using clutches if you had them, or after sliding a single screw vessel alongside, and ever so quickly getting the helm over to the opposite lock, then applying huge amounts of throttle.

Thrusters came along, then dynamic positioning systems, and finally remotes, so that you could walk off your own boat onto the quay, and tie it up yourself. Nice.

However, all that required a deep understanding of walking the stern, using springers and thrust to take your boat clear, then slipping said lines, knowledge of tide and wind, and a myriad of other handy points picked up along the way. Here was a barrier to entry like no other.

So now go one further. Consider an airliner; from back in the day when you could actually go into the room with a view. Analogue dials, circuit breakers, tiny incandescent globes behind switches and buttons that greeted you from the bulkhead forward, and on every available surface. There was even a Flight Engineer to keep looking at all the stuff.

Move to today, and there are large screens, computers talking to you, many functions running automatically or near so, and the huge mechanical yoke is long gone, with a tiny joystick, more akin to a gaming console, now governing flight control. About the only thing that has some sort of semblance of yesteryear are the thrust levers. Sort of...

We have arrived. This is what Alloy Boats is about. No Android style common interface with your machine. No. No. No. This is to be Apple iOS style boating, hence why all the engineers, especially those that have autonomous car and truck type experience, such as Kinney himself.

So do I like this idea? Well, in a word, yes. Not everyone has had the pleasure of boating since the year dot. Also, who would not like a second in command who can prompt you, proffer ideas, and make you look like a genius? It would be like taking an exam with the cheat sheets open. Fancy that. I got 100%, again! Who would have thought...

This is how Cotter sees it, "When you get in a $200,000 recreational boat today, there's nothing about that experience that speaks to it being a really well orchestrated, very thoughtful kind of end-to-end experience, like you would with an Apple product, for example. We are going to make our experience very different."

OK there, and that's all great, but there are some significant why questions here. Why the open bow, which obviously cannot take any sort of seaway? Why 35 knots+? Why all electric? Why autonomous when there are just so many obstacles floating, submerged, moving all over the place in the marine environment?

Cotter commented, "I grew up on the water, driving boats since I was nine. In Dallas, we're landlocked, so most of our boating is all inland waterways. Smaller locations with fresh water, and this is a different kind of experience. On a bad day here, the waves get to a whole foot high!"

Starting to see a picture emerge? Well Cotter spelled it out, "11,000 marinas in the USA, 305,000 vessels sold in 2022, and of that, some 65 to 70,000 of them were pontoon boats! It's unbelievable that 65,000 plus people decided that they wanted to buy one of these ugly things that look like two Sprite cans with a living room on top. And who decided that the Toons needed to do 60 knots? Not somebody with a whole lot of Naval Architecture background."

Another thought to seriously ponder at this juncture, is that they are spending up to USD300k, as well. So the Toon thing may have been the spark, but the combustion had to be the chasm between boatie and non-boater. If you own a boat and someone you know asks to borrow it, and you are aware of their lack of knowledge, then we all know what the answer is going to be: "No way!"

For Cotter, this was also amplified when they took out a friendly staff member from a local waterfront restaurant they have frequented for a decade, after he and his wife learned that their waiter had never been on the water, but would love to do so. It resonated with them, and the fun had by all from the day is part of what propels Alloy Boats on, even now.

So for Alloy Boats, the autonomous angle is like an extra set of hands for the proficient boatie, and a way to remove the immense number of obstacles and impediments to enjoying a safe day on the water for the complete novice. "Hey, Siri. Help me get out of the marina OK."

You also get the sense that they are aware of the need to supply practical learning experiences, as it will not be as simple as simply saying, "Swipe left." Additionally, there are times when it is unwise to offer autonomous navigation to your favourite anchorage, for instance, due to weather or traffic, and so different levels of assistance will be offered depending on pre-set criteria. Welcome to the digital age.

Check out the video to see it in action.

Personally, I am not adverse to this, because currently you have different brands, different menus, different thoughts as to how it should be done, which I still find confronting and frustrating. You could argue that it just makes sense to apply the now ingrained learnings from smartphone operation now into its second decade. Don't believe me? Consider that QR codes were nowhere, and then a little bug with huge consequences arrived, and everybody was subsequently scanning and ticking like pros in no time. The trees bend in the wind, and all...

Additionally, the team has a lot of automotive experience, and it is safe to argue that there are more issues to autonomous operation on land than sea. So the notion of levels of autonomy that we raised just before are prudent and sensible, so one does not go the way of DMC in a micro-second digital flash. The clever thing will be the way the boater and vessel interact to deliver the enriched experience that we spoke of at the beginning.

The graphic interface will be as telling as the software to run the levels of autonomy, and I dare say just as much time is spent on Grapevine Lake by the development team assessing this, as it is determining the parameters for safe assisted/autonomous operation. This is a totally symbiotic circle if ever I saw one.

Alas, let's go back to your non-boatie neighbour once more, and look at a case where you can geo-fence their area of operation, set speed limits, and not allow them to go below a certain level of assisted operation. The response now could well move from "No way" to something more pleasant, such as, "Absolutely, but only after a little bit of coaching".

Being the USA, there are also massive rental fleets to consider in all of this, and if you have safety as your guiding light, then should there be a problem, then geo-fencing, GPS locators and tracking will definitely take the S out of SAR.

Cotter added, "We didn't say, let's build a boat and then let's figure out how to shove some technology into it. We said let's start with the technology and then build the boat around it. When you do it this way, you really give yourself an infinite sort of flexibility. There are use cases that we unlock that just simply wouldn't be possible in a traditional environment."

Orvieto took us further, "We're absolutely deadly serious about functional safety. When we say anything autonomous or anything with any sort of captain or skipper, safety is at the forefront, and we have expertise both in the marine autonomy domain and also in the automotive autonomy domain around functional safety to back this up.

"We're participating with leading US organisations on the regulatory front to make sure that anything we and any competition bring to market is absolutely compliant to the best standards available."

Now apart from safety, Orvieto also highlights the transparency, even seamlessness, that they envisage for their system, which is made even harder by all the elements going into a boat from different suppliers. Alloy Boats will have to be agnostic as they set about utilising the best available in the market in order to create their vision.

Accordingly, you have to also account for changes to interconnectivity of differing componentry, yet keep your end user experience exactly the same to what the person bought in the first place. After all, it is why they came to you. Let us also not forget that this is a premium product.

Think of it as Motorola v Intel v Apple's own chips - they all look like Mac OS to the user, but are way different underneath... Of course the real challenge is that the whole has to work, all the time, or you could be thinking about John DeLorean before you know it.

It is certainly not as easy a process as the paragraph I have used to describe it, either. "High-end cars have a carefully crafted onboard experience, despite all the interior parts and pieces that may be supplied by a hundred different participants, across a global supply chain. When you get in there behind the wheel, it looks and feels a certain, cohesive way.

"This is something that I think can really set us apart in the industry, because this old school kind of buying parts out of a catalogue, and just slapping things into a fibreglass enclosure, for lack of a better term, is really longing for disruption. I say this both as a naval architect and designer myself, but also as just somebody who's grown up around boating for my whole life."

Reflecting on the all-important levels, for there will be no asleep at the wheel with an Alloy Boat, Orvieto commented, "Our user experience will be very deliberate, and very transparent about what the system is. We've worked hard with leading user-interface experts for the design to make sure that everything we're communicating to the user is the most pertinent information, and delivered as simply and actionable as possible." This is the team in Germany behind the Whoop fitness brand, and has been with Alloy Boats since the start.

Most specifically, end-users will see this when "...they may wish to do point-to-point navigation, but the system immediately tells you, listen, the conditions are not right for this. We're not going to have you proceed, however, we'll place you into Level Two mode, where we can give you obstacle predictive paths, we can give you closest point of approach, and other things that you as the skipper can use to navigate, rather than the computer doing it itself. We want to be transparent to both customer and industry alike."

Naturally, there will be online and video help/guidance, but both Cotter and Orvieto are clear that it is to be as intuitive, easy, and logical as possible, and to me, this is the real deal right there. No one seems to complain about their phone, but the TV remote certainly keeps getting a pasting. Wonder what the stats are on which gets hurled at the wall more often?

There are fail-safe mechanisms, get home modes, and the one I really like is "...proprietary methods of interacting with customers if indeed they get into some sort of a sticky situation." Cannot wait to see what that translates into, but the notion that they are peering down every rabbit hole imaginable is as appealing as it is sensible...

"The other thing I would add is we're talking about building the brand and building boats plural, but this isn't an immediate ramp up to suddenly we're at thousands of units. That is uncontrollable. We're trying to be very realistic about the sorts of volumes we hope to achieve, and on what timeline," said Orvieto.

"This is a luxury product that will get the white glove service. If I think about similarly disruptive products in the past, one example that jumps to mind was the Hinckley Picnic Boat. When they first did the joystick with those water jets, there was a course that you basically had to take and they would fly out a Hinckley Factory Captain to go and school you up to make sure you knew how to use this thing.

"We're not planning to fly captains to potential customers, but we will be very, very targeted with our sales approach, and also understand exactly who our customers are. We will be doing some level of onboarding with each client as they as they enter into this relationship with us as a brand."

Given that as we said earlier with the evolution of the cockpit in an airliner, the Alloy Boats experience is set to be equally as large in terms of quantum, as it is disruption, this will be both warranted and appreciated. They started with a blank sheet of paper, so expect change in the level of the Mini, Honda Z or Civic, to say nothing of Mazda RX-7, Lamborghini Miura, or more recently BMW 1M, by way of examples.

So consider what the whole thing will be like to leave the marina, bring your boat up beside another, or any other of a dozen or more 'missions', all by touching the screen. Will you be Montgomery Scott or Hikaru Sulu? Alloy Boats are a little bit protective about the exact nature of many of the aspects, but it is fun to ponder whether 'Computer' will understand your accent.

What we can say is that from their own in-house testing, novices have found the joystick concept engaging, novel (fun), and intuitive.

One thing that is ever-evolving right now is electric propulsion in terms of stage and motors. The water jets are locked in, but other changes in about the same time it has taken you to read this paragraph. Propulsion is a specialty for Orvieto, who has a deep pedigree with ZF to draw upon, and in acknowledging the point he said, "I would say it's something that we're constantly evaluating.

"We've made some pretty strong relationships, and given my background, I think we have good potential partners to, to work with. We're evaluating a couple of different options, whether it be different motors or different battery packs, but we're on the leading edge from where we see ourselves compared to competitors in terms of in terms of battery density and motor power density, i.e. power to weight for the size we have."

Ponder it all in light of the fact that it will be 2024 before a boat is ready, and the game will have moved even more by then. Alloy Boats overall innovation is in the way the systems and technology interact with the user, not in one construction method over another, or this powerplant instead of that.

As for the speed and range specs, well a lot of that came down to assessing the customer. Say six to eight hours of use at both WOT and cruise, play tunes etc, then charge at night back at the lake house or marina. Fast enough when needed, yet not excessive, and not limited by being electric, either. Fun needed a part of it, after all. Whimpy was not going to sell.

Also, when you jump into this space, the likes of Volvo-Penta are going to be there, and this is why you see the focus on the proprietary experience, thoughtfully curated to integrate hardware and software. "We're not trying to make it work with 500 boats. I think that's something that gives us a unique position in the market, and quite frankly, a competitive advantage against Volvo-Penta in any of these markets," said Cotter.

"Volvo-Penta is certainly formidable, with their resources and the way they test. I have a huge amount of respect for the company, and their technical prowess. I just like the way they go about their business and their products. When they release them they are typically leading edge kind of stuff.

"That being said, it's a big consensus driven, big international organisation. They pick their direction, then go after it wholeheartedly, and with the big budget, which is a very Scandinavian approach. However, in my mind, there is still an advantage to being very nimble, and very reactive," added Orvieto.

"Large companies going to make their own propulsion equipment need to start spinning up their supply chain now, so that it's ready in three years. We're an integrator making everything harmonious for the user, and really relying on that. They're looking at a much larger pie than we are. Certainly there's some overlap and there's enough interest in this sort of technology and this sort of changed paradigm of boating that there's going be room for the Volvo-Pentas, and also the Alloys of the world.

"Understanding the usage profile is so critical. The more we understand about how our customers are using the boats, the more we can optimise. What do they really need, and how do we install it. This is our passion," said Orvieto.

So is Alloy in the boat business, or the entertainment business? The answer might be in whether you consider your iPhone to be a comms device, or an access module...

OK. Today you will find that the website has an abundance of material from right across the globe, and if you cannot find something, just try the search button right up the top of the landing page, above our logo. If you cannot find what you want or wish to want to add to that, then please make contact with us via email.

Finally. Please look after yourselves.

John Curnow
Global Editor, Powerboat.World

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