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Three-D charts go mainstream

Jun 22, 2011

Sensor fusion and powerful graphics are supercharging electronic charts

Any pilot will tell you that the most exciting part of the trip is the first two minutes, and the last 10. Departure and approach are where the action is…checklists, planning, navigation, and split-second reactions and decisions are the grist for flying stories. The stuff in between? Well, pilots say that flying is defined as hours of boredom, interrupted by moments of stark terror. Much the same can be said of an ocean voyage, only more so.

On long passages, we post a lookout of the watch, and more frequently, just set the radar on alert with a 10 or 15-mile guard band. Hours between contacts can melt into days on some passages. Then it’s time to arrive, and everything starts to happen in a hurry. Unfamiliar shores, new charts that are still hopelessly out of date, traffic, and currents all stand between us and the dock. Navigation and operation workloads get heavier, and mistakes more frequent.

New navigation systems are becoming available that will provide safer and less stressful near-shore operation. These systems rely on what the military calls “sensor fusion” — that combines relevant information into a few easy-to-understand displays. Once the province of Navy and commercial ship wheelhouses, these new 3D systems are now small enough, inexpensive enough, and efficient enough to warrant consideration for many pleasure yachts.

Seamless zoom    
The newest of these super-navigator systems is the TimeZero 3D Trident system from Nobeltec. Using a large high-resolution color display, the TimeZero system employs conventional computers running Microsoft Windows to provide a seamless zoom capability and layering of several information types. By interfacing standard data protocols such as CANbus, NMEA 0183, NMEA 2000, and Furuno NavNet to the computer, TimeZero provides raster and vector chartplotter functions, but also allows the fusion of high resolution satellite imagery, tides and tidal currents, AIS, GRIB weather, weather and ocean data (such as temperatures, sky conditions, waves, pressure, sea state, etc.) and real-time radar. The system also has display modes for engine data, video, and other inputs. The result is a navigation system providing an unprecedented level of situational awareness.

Because the TimeZero system is based on COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) hardware and software, a full system is both less expensive and more customizable than prior purpose-built systems. By selecting components appropriate to the mission and environment, pleasure sailors and commercial mariners will be able to tailor a system precisely. For instance, the system may be installed on a rugged laptop computer at the navigation station, with a sunlight-readable and waterproof repeater screen at the helm. It may also be the basis of a full “glass panel” installation on the bridge of larger vessels.

Turnkey systems
For those looking for a “turnkey” system that implements the TimeZero software, the Furuno NavNet 3D is based on a series of integrated display/processor instruments (MFD 12 and MFD 8) or a “black box” processor (vx2BB) and a choice of sunlight-readable flat panel displays (MU-150HD 15” LCD or MU-190HD 19” LCD). The NavNet 3D system presents information by combining relevant displays to increase comprehension. Other Furuno subsystems such as the BBWX2 Sirius satellite weather receiver permits NOWRad nationwide live weather radar imagery; high-resolution sea surface temperatures; marine forecasts; storm tracking; buoy reports; wave height forecasts and more to display atop the chart. An added bonus is the system’s ability to stream Sirius Radio audio programming, as well.

The WS200 Ultrasonic Weather Station delivers GPS position and onboard weather data to the NavNet 3D system that displays apparent and true wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, temperature, wind chill, pitch and roll, and rate of turn. The NavNet 3D system family includes Furuno’s radar systems, AIS for collision avoidance, fish finders, a high-accuracy satellite compass using three GPS receiver antennas, smart sensors for depth, water temperature, and speed through the water, an autopilot, and several other specialized network elements and displays.

Touch-screen integration
Other manufacturers are also providing similar functions in new lines of navigation equipment. For example, Raymarine provides its E-Series Widescreen displays that integrate many of the same information streams as TimeZero in a touch-screen display. Using the SeaTalkNG, NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 protocols for communication, E-Series systems quickly switch modes to display charts, weather, radar, video, infrared night vision camera feed, engine data, communications radio control, and a unique LifeTag wireless man-overboard transponder. The E-Series system uses the Navionics Platinum chart engine for 3D display of navigation charts aligned with satellite photos, depth profiles, and overlay tables of tides and currents.

Fugawi also provides a Windows-based 3D software system, the Fugawi Marine ENC Ver. 4.5. This system projects both satellite and marine chart information into a perspective view, similar to other 3D systems discussed here, as well as other 2D chart and satellite photo views. It is not, however, a fully integrated glass panel navigation solution, but is a sophisticated chartplotter and planning tool. Fugawi does sell other software packages that display AIS, NMEA data, and export waypoints to chartplotters and other GPS equipment.

Making better decisions?
One question must be considered by any mariner contemplating installation of this new breed of navigation system: Does the technology permit the navigator to make better decisions? In some cases, particularly in approaching an unfamiliar port, or in bad weather or heavy traffic situations, the clear answer is “yes.” This type of sensor fusion can reduce confusion and provide a clearer picture for the navigator at one glance. Some systems, however, present clearer fusions of the information than others, and some hardware and software may be simpler to operate under pressure or in poor conditions. The ultimate decision, however, may depend on simpler issues of space at the helm, power consumption and dollar budget for fancy electronics.

One thing is certain, though: the romantic days of “… all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…” are in most ways, long past. Now we seem to demand that our ship have GPS, AIS, satellite photos, radar, and side-scan sonar. The glare from all those digital displays has obscured the stars, and our sextant lays gathering dust at the bottom of the hanging locker.

Lawrence Husick is a sailor and patent attorney in Philadelphia. He is also a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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