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Marine networking evolution

Aug 30, 2013

Better marine electronics pushes network development

(page 2 of 2)

Wireless networking
Wireless networks to move vessel information around have become more common with the advent of so many new mobile devices. Raymarine introduced WiFi in its new e7 system in late 2011, and within a year Garmin, Furuno, and Navico gear had the ability to communicate with tablets and phones. Furuno’s WiFi capabilities also now include the uploading of cartography and software updates via the Internet. A variety of other systems, such as Chetco’s open source HTML protocol SeaSmart WiFi system lets you use local mobile devices to access NMEA 0183 and 2000 data, and when connected to a WAN port, ship’s data is available via the Internet. Digital Yacht, Comar, and Brookhouse can provide local WiFi access to NMEA data. There are ongoing efforts to do the same with Bluetooth. Garmin is already using ANT RF technology to stream NMEA data to its new Quatix marine watch, which also acts as an autopilot remote, and man-overboard device.

Furuno’s TZ Touch system uses wireless networking approach to move data from a variety of sources to multiple displays.

The Fusion IP700i marine stereo system is a good example of the difficulties manufacturers can incur when trying to make their products compatible across a broad range of technologies. The original 700 series stereo used a N2K network to talk to their remotes with their proprietary PGNs (none existed for marine stereos). Because the first version provided power to their NMEA 2000 network, you couldn’t easily connect it to an existing powered NMEA network. An adapter cable was added to allow a standard NMEA 2000 network connection. Raymarine integrates to Fusion but they opted to use an Ethernet port. Garmin in turn uses the N2K network for integration. You have to support WiFi too and two Bluetooth modules were needed for iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android mobile devices; one to stream just audio, and a second that supports audio and data for the display. Of course, you also need a SiriusXM satellite connection, USB interface, composite video input and capability to dock almost every single i-device made. The Fusion IP700i is effectively using a bewildering array of networking and communication technologies, and this is just a marine stereo.

Now what does all of this mean when you’re considering buying new, or adding electronics to your boat? What has changed dramatically is marine data networks now have considerably greater capabilities, along with increased technical complexity, and this is where things can get complicated. Gateways translating one communication protocol to another, wireless interfaces such as ANT, and WiFi, along with Ethernet interfaces. Add to this mix the fact that the NMEA 2000 standard allows proprietary sentences (PGNs). This sets the stage for the inevitable creation of partnerships like the recent Raymarine/Victron/Empirbus collaboration to provide digital switching and energy management capabilities unique to them.

How do you figure out what is the best approach to designing marine electronics for your boat? It’s a good question. My first answer is to consider a general rule of thumb. Increased complexity equals reduced reliability. Each owner has to prioritize his or her needs. Start with the minimum. Choose a primary manufacturer carefully, and try as much as possible to use their equipment. A Raymarine autopilot will work with most systems, but it integrates best with a Raymarine system. For those who travel afar, consider having a separate redundant standalone GPS navigation system as a back up. Draw up system block diagrams, identify areas of important single point failures and carry critical spare parts. Lastly study what’s out there, and try to find the voices of those who have used them for better or worse. Cruisers’ forums are a good place to start.

There is nothing worse than not being able to flush your toilet because a computer has failed somewhere in the boat (that actually happened on a boat I worked on as an installer).

In many parts of the world, accessing sophisticated technological components can be a slow and expensive process. Keep systems as distributed as possible to improve redundancy. And lastly, remember that being on the bleeding edge of technology can be both very satisfying and at times frustrating. Remember that many high-tech companies, and their products, can have very short lifespans. The iPad is slightly more than three years old, and it’s in its fourth product generation.

In a Déjà vu sort of way we are right back where we were when the first NMEA standards were released, but in a more complicated way. Manufacturers are still looking for a technological advantage over their competitors. The open source community is still working hard to reverse engineer the standards, and technology is advancing at an even faster pace. NMEA certainly has some faults and detractors, but they are the only reason that any basic compatibility in marine electronics exists in the first place.

Yes, standards development has been slow in the past, but it is getting faster. The work the standards committees do involves a large number of organizations worldwide, and the efforts are mostly handled by volunteers. This is why today you can pick among a huge number of vendors, and have the confidence that NMEA-certified equipment will work with your system.

Bill Bishop is a marine electronics installer based in Sarasota, Fla. He also writes an entertaining blog about some of his installation experiences called the Marine Installer’s Rant -

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