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News article created on 1 November 2013

Could technology improve life for boaters?

I was reading a newspaper article online a few weeks ago that suggested that we are very close to driverless cars being introduced on the roads. Apparently the technology now exists that means we could see this 'sci-fi' fantasy become a reality within years not decades.

In another blog on the subject it was suggested that computer controlled vehicles on our roads could bring positive consequences, making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Cars would use sensors to respond to the surrounding environment and apply safety mechanisms much quicker than a human could respond. Better fuel efficiency could also be achieved by automated drivers, helping to reduce pollution.

This got me thinking about what technology could mean for the future of the canals. I don't think we'll get to a point of canal boats being driven by computers (what would the fun of that be) but there could be other areas where technology could improve life for boaters.

Take mooring for example, imagine if you could tell from your smart phone or a device on your boat (sat-nav for a barge?) whether there was space to moor at your chosen destination or whether you should find somewhere to tie up sooner. Perhaps technology could usher in a system that would allow boaters to reserve mooring spaces.

How about rewarding boaters for navigating our waterway or for contributing to its upkeep by reporting faults or clearing up litter. If boats had GPS (global positioning satellite) tracking devices, then miles travelled could be turned into 'barge miles'. Reporting incidents through an app could result in 'thank you points'. Points could be turned into gifts, offers or discounts.

What about signage - in many places towpath signs are victim to vandalism or simply out of date. Could technology result in us doing away with signage all together? Information provided directly to your phone or boat could replace the need for towpath totems completely.

Perhaps the technology isn't quite there for some of these ideas yet, but as the driver-less car shows,  technological advances can often creep up on is sooner than we expect. When I was a child the idea of a cordless device that you could speak to others from, let along speak face to face, through was pure science fiction - now many of us have such a device in our pockets every day.

I'm sure there will be boaters be horrified at the thought of technology creeping into our canals. Some would rather our canals remained firmly rooted in the past when life was slower. Of course we shouldn't forget that when they were first created some saw the canals in the same way - a threat to their quiet existence, cutting artificial rivers into the land and forging a path for the creeping industrialisation of the country.

There is a serious argument to be had here of course. Technology, if used effectively, could free up valuable resources to pay for other things. I'd be a wealthy man if, in the five months since I joined the Trust, I had a £1 for every time someone had said to me that the Trust should be spending more on repairing leaking locks, cutting back overgrown banks, dredging more etc, etc.

We should start the conversation now on how and where technology should be used to help manage our canals and rivers, because I'm pretty sure the technology will soon be with us to do just that (if indeed it isn't already!).

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The boating team

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