Mariner's code: Computer hackers conquering the high seas

Story highlights

  • A group of German computer hackers is developing sailing software out at sea
  • So far the group has produced an android app and computer programs that manage on-board heating systems
  • Their ultimate aim is to create a type of software that connects all boats at sea

Resting on the icy cool surface of the Baltic Sea, a rickety old boat of hardy sailors works long into the night.

Eyes strained, minds stretched, many have gone days without sleep.

But this is no ordinary vessel of sea-faring adventurers battening down the hatches as they get set to navigate stormy waters.

This is Hackerfleet -- a Berlin-based collective of volunteer software developers and programmers burning the midnight oil as they craft a new generation of ultra-smart sailing software.

"We work on a ship because it's fun and everybody likes that," said "Ijon" (an online pseudonym) the organization's co-founder.

"You can't leave ... [and] everyone is very focused. It's intense and we get very little sleep but the method is overwhelmingly beneficial as a source of ideas," he added.

See also: Why scouring the seas for treasure is big business

Founded in the summer of 2011 by Ijon and his business partner "Riot", Hackerfleet offers a mariner's twist on the long-popular hackathon concept.

Groups of programmers and engineers gather to share skills, knowledge and embark on intense code writing sessions, casting off from shore when they can to carry out their work.

Most "Hacker Cruises" last between three and five days and can be attended by as many as 15 to 20 carefully selected people, Ijon said.

Each crew-member generally has a specialist skill or area of technical expertise. This means they offer something unique and worthwhile to the project.

"It's an unusual workspace," said "Keyboardsurfer", a volunteer computer hacker and expert in android platforms. "(But) we're pushing each other to create something that amazes everyone."

"The possibility to communicate with every participant whenever it's needed makes the work on sea very effective," he added.

So far Hackerfleet's voyages have produced an android app that charts the location of buoys and sea-signs as well a "virtual helmsman" that can autonomously hold the course of any ship.

The group's ultimate aim, though, is to create a completely new type of sailing software that will connect all boats at sea -- essentially transforming them into floating data-collection devices.

This mass connectivity will enable Hackerfleet to gather, store and ultimately transmit back out to sea vast amounts of important marine information.

See also: Superyacht doubles as a science lab

Some of the most detailed depth charts, maps, weather measurements, ocean safety warnings and wildlife monitors ever created are all within the realm of possibility should the plan come to fruition, Ijon claims.

"We want to develop the biggest database on oceans and sea information that is imaginable and theoretically possible," he said.

"If every ship (both commercial and recreational) shares what it knows then we can centralise this data at one point in the database allowing us to calculate things much more accurately.

"We can then send out this information to all ships that have our systems installed."

Ijon says he expects the first consumer-ready prototype version of this "Mastbox and Shipbox" technology to be available by early 2014. Commercial deployment is then expected to follow in either 2015 or 2016.

Popularizing the software once complete however will likely provide a whole new set of challenges, each requiring more than just a clever code or hack to address.

The user-generated nature of the technology means it will have to be adopted by vast numbers of boats to fulfil its full potential -- although a chunk of data the system relies on is already publicly available and used by other on-board computer systems.

See also: $16 million solar boat sails into record books

Ultimately though, Ijon maintains that commercial success is not a primary concern of the Hackerfleet.

The organization remains an operation run by friends with a mutual passion for the seas and technology. As such, all software is currently given away for free and any code developed remains open-sourced.

"Essentially, it's less about earning money and more about getting the seafarer and his ship on the next technological level in the 21st century," Ijon said.

"We expect to be paid for our work at some point but we want to do this in the right way, the morally correct way," he explained.

"This (technology) could potentially give us the best information stock for crews and captains to decide on ... and for us that is what's most important for now."

        MainSail

      • Wide shot of a sailboat from a drone

        Drones offer new angle on superyachts

        "Sometimes, I fly the drone with my head in a trash bag so I don't get salt spray from the sea on my equipment," says drone operator Justice L Bentz.
      • Dave Swete and Nick Dana on the bow of Alvimedica for a windy downwind sail change during the team's second trans-Atlantic training session, this time from Newport, Rhode Island, USA, to Southampton, England

        Disney duo's new 'fairytale story'

        Navigate the world's most treacherous seas, crossing 73,000 nautical kilometers in a confined space with stressed-out, sleep-deprived crewmates. 
      • The Triton Submarine.

        Millionaire water toys

        Personal submarines, jetpacks, even 'walking boats.'
        Why the Monaco Yacht Show is a bit like stumbling upon James Bond's secret gadget lab.
      • London's new superyacht hotel, in Royal Victoria Docks.

        Inside $67M superyacht hotel

        London's new superyacht hotel is so enormous, authorities had to lower the water level by five meters just to fit it under a bridge.
      • Thomson hurtles up to the top of the mast aware that the boat can keel at any moment and fling him either onto the deck or the water below

        What next for sailing's daredevil?

        His mast-walking stunts have attracted over 3.5 million hits on YouTube, but Alex Thomson just wants to get back to doing what he does best.
      • Endeavour, a 1934 J-Class yacht, racing during The America's Cup Anniversary Jubilee around The Isle of Wight 21 August 2001. The four entries in the J-Class category represent the oldest remaining class used in America's Cup competition. Over 200 boats, including vintage yachts are taking part in the America's Cup Jubilee to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first America's Cup race in 1851. AFP PHOTO Adrian DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

        Through hell and high water

        Elizabeth Meyer talks to CNN's Mainsail about the "Armageddon battle" to restore the pioneering J-class boat Endeavour.
      • Specatators use a boat to watch as boat crews race on the River Thames at the Henley Royal Regatta on July 2, 2014 in Henley-on-Thames, England. Opening today and celebrating its 175th year, the Henley Royal Regatta is regarded as part of the English social season and is held annually over five days on the River Thames. Thousands of rowing fans are expected to come to watch races which are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m) which regularly attracts international crews to race. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

        'Downton Abbey' on the water

        Like "Downton Abbey," Henley's Royal Regatta reminds its visitors of an England of old. But for how much longer?
      • LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge poses next to the America's Cup as she visits the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the Ben Ainslie America's Cup Launch on June 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

        Britain's $134M secret weapon?

        Can a $134 million budget and the royal seal of approval bring the coveted America's Cup back to British shores for the first time in sailing history?
      • Eyos Expeditions offers superyacht journeys to the most remote places on Earth.

        Yachting to the ends of the Earth

        Bored of lounging on your superyacht in the Mediterranean? An increasing number of millionaires are now sailing their luxury vessels to the ends of the Earth, to get their kicks.