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Why wireless?

Nov 1, 2017

Networks haven’t completely dropped cables, but the wireless approach is ever more handy and useful

Using a tablet for navigation while on a training sail.

Using a tablet for navigation while on a training sail.

Electronic navigation was revolutionized by the introduction of the GPS signal, and today wireless technology helps it continue to evolve.

But one of the big questions is whether a wireless network and phone/tablet technology will sideline the multifunction display (MFD) and its hardwired network — cornerstones of current electronic navigation. The short answer is no, or at least not yet. There are lots of upsides to wireless routing, but there are also some serious drawbacks, and hardwired networks like copper wire electrical grids will be around for quite a while.

Currently, Ethernet technology and a cable-based network allow an immense amount of data to be shuttled to and from multifunction displays. The system can interconnect a wide variety of onboard digital and analog sensors, radio receivers, radar, infrared cameras and other devices. This electronic architecture has been in play for a couple of decades and we are now in an era of evolution rather than revolution. One of the most promising new trends, however, is the ability to wirelessly link a tablet or smartphone to a boat’s networked navigation system. This process allows crucial navigation data to be better disseminated among the crew, and it even allows our tablets and phones to act as a wireless remote control, changing settings that range from the course headings to what’s being displayed on the vessel’s MFD screen.

A B&G Zeus MFD wirelessly synced with an iPad, mini iPad and a smartphone.

Being slower than most to embrace a new trend, it took me a while to fully realize the value of moving shore-based smartphone and tablet technology afloat. Part of my reluctance is that I like my nav table aboard Wind Shadow and find it the right place to do route planning, consider the effects of a wound-up weather system or double team with the helmsperson as the radar observer in overcast conditions. It’s a place that puts me in a “pay attention” mode and automatically sidelines the extraneous. So, I was a little reticent about handling those tasks on the fly with a smartphone or tablet in hand.

What changed my mind about an onboard wireless connection between my iPad and nav system stemmed from an unusual sail-training cruise. Recently, I spent a few days evaluating a crew who were being trained by the Annapolis School of Seamanship. But during the three days spent underway, the roles reversed and the teacher learned a few new lessons himself. The school had been training a close-knit group of relatively new sailors and wanted a third-party opinion on how the training was going. When I stepped aboard, I found the crew fully engaged in preparing for departure — a good sign in itself. I had been told that the lads were very experienced with terrestrial orienteering but relatively new to the seafaring rendition of the navigator’s art. I hoped that the latter would be bolstered by the former.

Their cruise plan included a sail up the Chesapeake Bay, transit of the C and D Canal and a sail down the traffic-ridden Delaware River. It was a challenging itinerary that included plenty of night operations, side-setting currents and even the extra complication of a spring tide. Once clear of Overfalls Shoal, situated at the mouth of Delaware Bay, we would sail a coastal route to New York Harbor and see how the sail-handling part of the puzzle played out. The offshore sailing would be the easy part; the navigation challenges would be the real trial by fire.

Weather data on a iPad running iNavX.

Courtesy iNavX

Once the gear was stowed and the navigation and safety briefs given, the lines and fenders disappeared and we efficiently got underway. Shortly thereafter, my impromptu training also began. The crew was well equipped with iPads and quickly synced them to the sloop’s Simrad NSS nav system using an iOS GoFree app. Fortunately, my role was to stand back and observe, intruding only when and if things went well off course. During the next three days, I was the one who learned how situational awareness can be maintained and enhanced via wireless technology — with or without a chart table. The crew negotiated tight channels and dodged traffic ranging in size from skiffs to ships. The lookout, navigator and person on the helm all had large-scale digital charts displayed on their tablets or at the chart table-mounted MFD. In tight confines, we were often accompanied by an overabundance of commercial traffic. The crew put the AIS chart overlay info to good use. The person acting as lookout referred to the AIS data that was wirelessly sent to his tablet. When he contacted nearby merchant ships using a VHF hand-held radio, he already had the name, position and CPA of the vessel and would then confirm its location, course and speed plus any meeting, crossing or overtaking details. In short, this teamwork among the crewmembers benefited from the enhanced access to network data that was provided by the Wi-Fi link. Not only did the crew get high marks, their instructor decided to expand his nav station into a wireless information hub.

Background
Wi-Fi networking was developed nearly two decades ago. Interestingly, it was initially designed as a wireless cash register linking system. Few realized how many devices the technology would benefit. Today, all four major marine electronics manufacturers offer ways to link their hardwired networks and MFDs to smartphones and tablets. It’s been accomplished through the use of built-in routers or network bridges that allow their hardware to communicate with smartphones and tablets via a radio frequency (RF) link. The low power signal has a range that’s greater than Bluetooth communications but still measured in tens or perhaps hundreds of feet. Even though built-in routers offer good signal-to-noise ratios, Wi-Fi signals are prone to interference from other Wi-Fi sources. Interference caused by electrical and electronic devices operating nearby can also impact signal quality. Those who notice a drop-off in data-handling speed should try a simple troubleshooting process. Start by shutting down as much of the vessel’s electrical system as possible. Then, on a breaker-by-breaker basis, reintroduce the load. This controlled sequential return to full power often identifies the culprit. In some cases, it can be a microwave oven, alternator or even a nearby LED lamp with an electronically noisy voltage regulator that emits spurious RF interference, which can degrade a Wi-Fi signal. Other times, it’s distance and shielding that may make it necessary to install a standalone router in the system’s network.

A lighted nav aid in twilight during the author’s training sail.

An Ethernet cable connection is always a little faster and quite a bit more secure than a wireless connection. And that’s a key reason why some manufacturers prefer to keep autopilot controls as a hardwired function. However, the convenience and user-friendliness of lashing up a familiar smartphone or tablet to your onboard network delivers plenty of other valuable advantages. One of the most beneficial features is that it engages more of the crew in navigation awareness. It’s interesting to note how comfortable people are with operating their smart devices — a value added when it comes to implementing a wireless link on board.

Most systems allow the skipper or navigator (system administrator) to designate whether a specific phone or tablet functions as repeater, a read-only function or provides full system control. The latter allows changes to be made to routes stored in the memory, display settings and other vital parameters. Most experienced navigators are reluctant to give out full control access to everyone on board.

Smartphone and tablet users must download an app specific to the brand and model of the MFD installed aboard the vessel. It lets their smart device link to the boat’s electronic navigation hardware in a manner that’s similar to how a home-based wireless router works. The app allows the mobile device to become part of your onboard network, providing repeater capability and mirroring what’s displayed on the MFD screen, as well as acting as a wireless remote control capable of manipulating digital charts, placing waypoints and routes, and switching functions.

Live radar data on a smartphone.

This combination of mobile and fixed hardware can be as streamlined as linking your smartphone or table to a single standalone GPS/plotter. Recently, I tested B&G’s Vulcan 7; its multifunction display is teamed up with a built-in GPS and Wi-Fi router. All it took to sync my iPad was to download the GoFree app on the iOS device, turn on the Vulcan and follow a couple of menu prompts, and the iPad recognized the B&G unit as if it were another familiar shoreside Wi-Fi signal source. As soon as I selected the Vulcan icon in the “settings” menu, I had the ability to use the iPad as repeater anywhere on deck or below, as well as control what the Vulcan was displaying. This digital partnership seems to double the usefulness of the standalone device.

Furuno, a pioneer in Wi-Fi interface technology, is about to roll out additional wireless capabilities for its TZtouch2 system. Just around the corner is the ability to connect to the Web, acquire weather, access crowdsourced chart info (Community Charts) and connect with a cloud-based data service. The company’s products are showing up on more and more commercial and military craft, they understand the commercial-grade ECDIS demands, and much of the research for that segment of the industry trickles down to the small-craft portion of their market.

Raymarine purchased TackTick some years ago and reintroduced an upgraded set of wireless sensors and new display systems. The waterproof solar-powered setup transmits wind, depth and speed data to mini MFD displays. These signals can also be networked with other Raymarine electronics or even used with another manufacturer’s network. Eliminating the dreaded mast cable puts a smile on the face of many sailboat owners and equipment installers. But the golden rule remains in play: The more wireless signals, the more chance of interference.

The Furuno TZTL15F MFD has Wi-Fi capability for connecting to wireless devices.

Courtesy Furuno

Raymarine’s latest lineup of Axiom touch-screen MFDs offer both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, plus expansion through their tried and proven Ethernet-based backbone. RayNet cabling has held up well in the marine environment, and it’s interesting to note that when it comes to Wi-Fi links, the company’s position is that “Wi-Fi is ideal for non-mission critical accessory connections”— a statement with which most technicians in the field completely agree.

Garmin has also entered the wireless world with cable-free sensors for depth and wind data, along with built-in routers that link smartphones and tablets to the Garmin network.

A word of caution
Enthusiasm over our mobile devices seems boundless, and manufacturers of fixed-mount marine electronic navigation gear were wise to build in wireless interface capability. But still there’s a wing of navigation’s cognoscenti that sees their phones and tablets as the mainstay of electronic navigation, rather than characters in a support role. There may be some validity of their claim — in calm weather and smooth seas, it’s very convenient to keep track of progress with a mobile device loaded with iNavX software. As a traditionalist who still teaches celestial navigation, I must admit that iNavX resides on my iPad and gets put to good use. But for me, when precise navigation really counts and the rain is blowing sideways, staying dry is just one of many challenges. In such conditions, seas are washing over the boat and the pitch, roll and yaw are conspiring with heave, sway and surge to send every unbolted item, including the crew, where it doesn’t want to go. It’s the worst possible time to have your nav station in your hand. It’s a time when you can discover that suction cup-attached brackets were never made to act as a hand hold. In tough conditions, you quickly grasp the value of a permanently mounted MFD that’s really waterproof, one with a liquid ingress protection rating of IPX7, which indicates that a device can withstand up to a meter of submersion for 30 minutes.

The correct apps loaded, wireless devices can look just like an MFD.

Soaking the electronics inside a fixed or portable device is just one of several heavy-weather impediments that come into play. A friend of mine recently recounted his experience with a squall that packed wind-driven raindrops that hit his touch-screen MFD hard enough to continuously prompt screen changes and make the touch-screen process utterly useless. In such cases, the ability to switch from the touch-screen function to a knob, track ball or toggling mode is a big plus.

Once all the upsides and downsides are tallied up, wireless routing, smartphones and tablets still get a thumbs-up as an onboard asset and another tool that an able crew can put to good use.

Ralph Naranjo is a circumnavigator, freelance writer and photographer based in Annapolis, Md.

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