Could a camera system developed by French defence giant Safran help us avoid running into objects floating in the sea?

Among the innovations we might see adapted for mainstream use in the next decade are more capable detection systems for ice and other boat-breaking floating objects. This is something French defence giant Safran has been developing and are hoping will trickle down from their work with Marc Guillemot’s IMOCA 60.

Last week, Safran announced that they would also be equipping Isabelle Autissier’s Antarctica expedition yacht ADA 2 with their UFO (unidentified floating object) system. Guillemot’s yacht Safran was fitted with this during the Vendée Globe last year to help reduce the risk of collision with growlers.

Safran is well placed to develop such technology. It specialises, among other things, in battlefield surveillance, using digital beamforming radar to detect and resist air and ground countermeasures.

The Safran IMOCA 60 was fitted with a masthead infrared camera said to be capable of detecting objects as small as 2x2m whose temperature differs from the general sea surface temperature.   

Few outside the Safran camp know if this detection system worked reliably – the only rumours I’ve heard are that the results weren’t impressive – but it’s the sponsors stated aim to develop it so that it can be launched in the marine market.

Presumably this is where Isabelle Autissier’s voyage comes in, as it takes her into areas where the crew is guaranteed to encounter bergy bits of all sizes. She has already emphasised that they are not relying on it for detection, but will be regularly recording data from the camera in five-minute segments.

It’s not hard to imagine how this technology may eventually come of age, particularly as processing power and analysis software advance. But for the moment, solo sailors don’t seem convinced it has a place on their boats.

When I met Mike Golding at the London Boat Show last week and spoke to him about it he pointed out that an ice detector was only valuable if it activated an autopilot, in which case a sudden course alteration could potentially be dangerous to boat and sailor. “Sometimes you want a boat to be dumb,” Golding commented.

It’s easier, however, to see the use of such a system on a crewed boat and on a yacht slower than an IMOCA 60 legging it downwind. Sailing along at 6-8 knots, there is more time for the sea surface to be viewed, images to be analysed and a crew to react.

This could also be the technology we have been waiting for to warn us of creatures such as whales or basking sharks that cause damage and could be hurt by us – their body temperature is around 37°C.

One way or another, this technology is coming. Infrared cameras are already being used for collision avoidance on top end BMWs and superbikes – the latter with images being sent by Bluetooth to helmet monitors.