The Ditch App: An AI twist on chart plotting adds historical data to the mix

Up until the 17th century, sailors braved the ocean by sheer grit, line of sight and, in many instances, a bit of sheer luck. By 1731 British Mathematician John Hadley changed the game, developing an improved version of the reflecting telescope (and grandfather of the sextant) for the purpose of using the celestial bodies to calculate one’s position at sea. For centuries, boaters might have thought it couldn’t get any better than this—until the year 2000, when the military released the GPS for use by the general public. AIS whizzes Peter Williams and Owen Davies, are willing to bet that they have another game changer: the Ditch App.

The name is a reference to the nickname of the ICW where Ditch’s founding partners do most of their boating. But the touted purpose and value of this new app goes well beyond usage in that particular body of water—it’s a navigational tool for all U.S. waterways and soon enough, should Williams and Davies complete their mission, the world.

But you’re probably already asking yourself, what’s unique about this navigational app? Well, it just may be the first one to utilize artificial intelligence. And before you go chalking it up to be just another dent on the AI bandwagon, Williams and Davies, who admit that they’re testing often-touted and little-tried waters, present some interesting logic to consider.

Ditch is available on both mobile and web platforms, so you can use it on any Android or Apple phone or tablet, and use it free on the web.

“If you think the way computers think and not the way that humans think, we have tons of data about where boats travel and AI is very good at predictive modeling,” Davies explains. “Given whatever requirements you have—a 50-foot vessel, for example—AI can really help make some sense about what would be an ideal route for you.”

Thanks to an explosion in the ability to handle increasingly large datasets that came with the invention of the cloud, big data models out there greatly facilitated this sort of analysis, Davies notes. The Ditch duo uses the usual big data most other chart plotters do, like NOAA, but where they stand out is their use of historical data—i.e., the last ten years of charted boat routes, to make what they call a “smart route.” Along with this aspect to their navigation system, users will be able to choose from a large selection of all sorts of models and sizes of boats’ precedented routes to assure that their AI companion can calculate and choose the best route given their vessel’s length and draft.

“It’s a different approach to route guidance, nobody’s used this historical data to influence route routing decisions,” Davies says. “I think it could be very useful in some situations where what you’re adding to the picture here like routing data changes the situation or is the lifesaver.”

A lot of these situations happen to Davies himself, he admits, recounting a moment in Jacksonville, where he was headed to the St. John’s River and the auto route had him going across a marina and under the Ortega River bridge to get there. According to Davies, it was low tide and the whole area was a mere 6 feet deep. Stuck without a channel, he had to swallow his pride and call the marina and ask how to get through.

“I said ‘this is kind of embarrassing but it’s not clear to me how to get through,’ and the guy was a weekend dockmaster. He says ‘well, you know, you might hit the bottom in a few places but it’s kind of soft,” Davies recalls. “I was like ‘Hey, dude, I don’t want to hit the bottom like this, I know there’s a thousand boats in there, there must be a route.” A moment later someone texted him a photo of a whiteboard with a roughly traced outline routing through a stick figure like map of the marina and a warning not to rely on the markers. “There has got to be a better way than this,” Davies thought.

Ultimately, Davies made it through to the St. John’s River, but only after struggling with the five-to-six-foot depth, and reverse routing another boat that just passed through from the other side. It’s situations like these that inspired the men to build their brainchild, which they plan, soon, to incorporate tides, weather and other factors alongside the analyzing of historical information to end up with a multi-dimensional sort of problem solver far more capable than traditional methods of analysis.

“We’re patent pending right now, and we raced out and did that when we realized that I don’t think anyone has taken this approach at all,” Williams says. “I don’t think anyone is even thinking ‘can we use historical data and apply statistical methods to suggest the best route?’”

The app made its official debut at this year’s Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show. While the phone and tablet version will be a paid option, Williams and Davies plan on keeping a desktop version of the Ditch App free.