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An expert look at marine electronics

Aug 31, 2018
Marine electronics pro Bill Bishop.

Marine electronics pro Bill Bishop.

Bill Bishop

Voyagers depend on marine electronics more than ever. And few people know more about the nitty-gritty details of combining these components into systems than those who design and install them. We talked to marine electronics pro Bill Bishop (ipsbishop@aol.com), a systems engineer and installer based in Sarasota, Fla., who recommends and installs every type of electronic and communications component. Here is his view of the current situation and what he predicts will be important going forward.

Ocean Navigator: As a marine electronics system designer and installer, which marine electronics products are most popular among mariners?
Bill Bishop: Multifunction displays (MFDs) with built-in sounder modules and GPS are almost becoming a de rigueur standard on many boats. Installation is much faster due to fewer remotely located devices, such as stand-alone sounder black boxes and GPS. This makes installations less costly for the owners. This is important because most boatbuilders still do a poor job of accommodating wire pulls and anticipating customers’ future equipment needs. Dragging cables and wiring can often be up to one-half or more of the cost of a large installation. Undersized conduits and undersized holes require cutting off connectors to get the wires through, and it takes time to re-terminate connectors at the other end — and the list goes on.

CHIRP-based sounders in all of their various technology flavors are very popular, especially in the center console and sport-fishing markets.

Radar is much more popular because costs have dropped dramatically, power requirements are lower and the capabilities and ease of use of have improved.

Autopilots now do amazing things. They teach themselves how to drive your boat. Accelerometers, gyros and digital compasses monitor the boat’s position in three axes along with the forces acting on it. Gone are the sea trials that took hours of manually tweaking settings to get the boat to behave well.

ON: You’ve seen big advances in marine electronics in the past two decades. What do you think are the biggest changes in that time?
BB: Marine electronics have always been behind the technological curve. This is caused in part due to the smaller specialized niche the industry serves. Although the metaphorical “Big Four” marine electronics companies aren’t small, the industry is very competitive. This keeps margins on the thinner side in some market sectors. New technology adoption is driven by the resources these companies can afford to allocate for research and product development.

A good example of a typical marine electronics installation.

Bill Bishop

There are four moments that jump out at me:

1. Garmin’s introduction of the first touch-screen MFDs. The 12-inch GPSMAP 5212 and 8-inch 5208 touch-screen units led the way and the others quickly followed. 

2. Raymarine’s e7 MFD in 2011 with integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth was definitely an industry game changer.

3. CHIRP sonar appeared at about the same time. This technology had existed earlier but was expensive and required a lot of computer horsepower to make it work. Specialty digital signal processor (DSP) costs became low enough around this time to allow the transfer of this technology into the recreational boating market.

4. Lastly, radar technology has made huge advancements. Solid-state amplifiers have replaced power-hungry magnetrons. Pulse compression and Doppler technology has improved radar performance by an order of magnitude. I have personally seen a single seagull sitting in the water about 60 feet from a boat using the Simrad Halo radar. This was unimaginable just a few years ago.

Another way to measure the technological progress of modern navigation systems is to look at the size of the software upgrade packages. A software update for a Raymarine C120 Classic (circa 2004) was 5.9 megabytes. In contrast, the current Garmin marine software bundle is 1.82 gigabytes.

ON: The NMEA 2000 networking standard, how widely is that implemented? Are most installations networked these days?
BB: Both NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 networks are alive and well. It is a rare boat of any size that doesn’t have an NMEA network. NMEA 0183 is still supported by the Big Four, but I suspect over time it will slowly fade away as legacy marine electronics disappear. NMEA 2000 is consistently reliable, easy to install and well supported by the marine electronics community.

Many installations require careful planning and calculations.

Bill Bishop

ON: As a member of the Signal K open source networking group, how much of an impact has Signal K made on marine networking?
BB: Signal K’s primary goal is to make your boat’s NMEA data available to app developers and the cloud in a license-free open source and standardized format. This is possible in large part because of NMEA’s recognition of the project. Signal K is available now. Digital Yacht manufactures the iKommunicate NMEA 2000 to Signal K gateway that plugs into a standard Wi-Fi router. There are a large number of apps currently available and many more in development. An app now exists that uses Amazon’s Alexa skills at the helm. Apps that support Internet of things (IoT) applications will soon be available.

Signal K has recently released its Version 1 server and schema software that enables a host of new capabilities never available to boaters. Server plug-ins supporting a wide variety of specialty applications are available in the free Signal K app store. Signal K now has more than 350 participants in our Slack work site representing many dozens of well-known marine electronics companies and software developers. Visit our new website at Signalk.org and watch for new announcements about the project.

ON: What trends in marine electronics do you expect in the next five years?
BB: Just as I think I have seen it all, I’m surprised every single time I go to a boat show. My best guess is that the MFD will migrate over time from a special-purpose navigation computer into a more comprehensive computer. Speeds, memory and storage will dramatically increase, allowing far more information and capabilities at the helm. IoT will quickly find its way into the boating mainstream: “Alexa, what is the time of arrival at the waypoint?” “You will arrive at the waypoint in 46 minutes.” “Hey Google, turn on the salon TV.” I’ve seen these things working already using Signal K.

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