Features November 1, 2004 Issue

Wireless Wunderkinder

An impressive array of new products has been introduced lately, and it appears that the market is about be inundated. From hand-held controllers to acoustic anchor monitors, the marine wireless revolution is just getting revved up.

This sailor is wearing the remote for NKE's innovative Gyropilot and Wireless system on a lanyard around his neck. When integrated with an on-board GPS, it doubles as a crew overboard response system with head-to-wind steering and EPIRB activation capabilities.

Visit any big hardware retailer, and it’s instantly obvious that small cordless power tools are fast supplanting their conventional counterparts. No question, folks truly dislike having to deal with wall sockets and extension cords—enough that many are willing to pay extra for cordless tools which, in most cases, are bulkier, heavier, and less powerful than the plug-in alternatives.

Given that cordless tools have become so popular despite their obvious drawbacks, how good are the prospects for a class of wireless devices that potentially offer nothing but benefits? Marine electronics offer many outstanding opportunities for wireless applications, and indeed, we are starting to see quite a few such products.

Practical Sailor anticipates the current trickle will soon become a torrent, and eventually, most on board electronics will utilize wireless data transfer in some capacity. Moreover, in cases where it's feasible to run equipment using self-contained batteries or solar cells, there are real advantages to eliminating the power supply wiring along with the data cables.

The Wireless Edge
Portable, handheld units are the most obvious candidates for wireless make-overs because everyone hates having cables stretching across the cockpit or tangling underfoot. But even for fixed-mount equipment, the wireless alternative offers some worthwhile advantages. The extensive wiring aboard most contemporary pleasure craft adds significantly to building cost, overall complexity, and, in some cases, even vessel weight. Adding more electronics to a finished boat can be especially challenging because conduits are often difficult to access or already over-crowded with conductors. Wireless devices are, by nature, easy to install, at least in the physical sense. Getting them to interface successfully may not be quite so painless, but manufacturers are increasingly aware of "human factor" issues, and are coming to recognize that user-friendliness is ultimately vital to sustained sales.

Connectors are the "soft targets" in most hard-wired marine electronics—the places where salt and moisture most likely gain access and begin their destructive work. Wireless design will eliminate some or all of these vulnerable sites, substantially improving survivability in the marine environment. Fully sealed, wireless units with built-in power supplies are the ultimate, but they obviously need to be far less power-hungry than conventional electronics hooked up to the 12-volt teat. However, just as more power-efficient microchips and memory systems have created a generation of laptop computers and even PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) that can rival the conventional desktop PCs, the latest wireless marine electronics have begun to close the gap on their hard-wired counterparts.

A final argument in favor of self-contained, wireless devices stems from the fact that many boats have rather marginal DC systems, and are ill-equipped to handle scads of optional electrical equipment. Under-sized wiring is prone to excessive resistance, particularly after connections begin to corrode with age and salt exposure. Selecting autonomous, wireless devices rather than conventional electronics may substantially improve house battery life while reducing charging requirements and hence, fuel consumption. Offshore voyaging sailors, in particular, will be pleased to take note.

The balance of this article will survey the nautical applications for which wireless solutions are currently available. At this point we are not attempting to review any wireless equipment in depth (although future issues of Practical Sailor will certainly take on that chore). Instead, the aim is to provide a sense of direction and progress in this rapidly evolving field.

For our purposes, the term "wireless" refers to short-distance connectivity without cables; not longer range radio applications such as VHF, short-wave, SatCom, cell phones, or for that matter, GPS. Of course, the distinction is an artificial one, but it's essential to limit the scope of discussion to some extent.

Controls and Controllers
Thanks to TV remotes, keyless car locks and automatic garage door openers, nearly everyone has become accustomed to manipulating buttons on hand-held, wireless controllers. So, while adding wireless control to an autopilot or anchor windlass remote doesn't qualify as a great conceptual leap, it's nevertheless a worthwhile improvement, particularly for the shorthanded sailor. With certain systems, a solo racer can even make course corrections from atop a mast while working on rigging underway, and cruisers can raise or lower their anchors while remaining at the helm in congested anchorages.

The French marine electronics firm NKE, and Nautamatic Marine Systems, are two of the first autopilot manufacturers to offer wireless remotes, but all major manufacturers will likely soon offer this attractive option. What with the current trend to electronic engine controls, there’s a good chance we'll someday see a wireless autopilot remote that also incorporates gearshift, throttle, and perhaps bow thruster controls. With portable helm in hand, it would be feasible for a skipper to hop ashore and handle the dock lines while still maneuvering the vessel as necessary.

At the time of this writing, Simrad was poised to debut their RemoteVision, a multi-function, handheld controller for use with the high-end Brooks and Gatehouse H2000 Hercules and Hydra electronics systems. Autopilot management is just one of many roles that this cutting-edge wireless device can apparently perform (see Full-on Networking, page 10).

Finally, Coastline Technology in the UK has developed the first wireless anchor windlass remote on the market, although again, there will likely be others before too long. The device can either replace existing cabled remotes and foot switches, or be used in parallel with them. It sells for about $285.

Navigation
Battery-powered pocket GPS receivers and GPS/plotters have lately been challenged by a new class of hand-held plotters consisting of a PDA mated up with GPS. New Zealand's NavMan offers GPS sleeves (actually, small docking stations) for various Palm and Pocket PC models. The combination produces a diminutive, but potent plotter; and the main advantage of a mass market PDA is a vivid, crisp data display at a reasonable price. The downside of working with garden variety PDAs is that, for now at least, none is waterproof.

The Garmin iQue 3600 and Mitac Mio 168 are the first examples of PDAs featuring built-in GPS receivers, eliminating the need for a separate GPS accessory sleeve. Unfortunately, both are intended primarily for road navigation. As Garmin's literature bluntly states, "the iQue is not recommended for use in, or near, water." Odds are, though, it won't be long before waterproof PDAs with built-in GPS are developed specifically for the marine and outdoor markets.

An alternative method of turning a PDA into a personal GPS plotter is to purchase a separate Bluetooth- equipped GPS receiver. Bluetooth is a popular short-range networking technology first launched by Ericsson, the Swedish cell phone giant. Originally conceived to eliminate cables between mobile phones and headsets, or between computers and peripherals such as printers, it works well for conveying GPS data to a portable computer.

Bluetooth-enabled GPS receivers are currently available from ALK Technologies, Hewlett Packard, Pharos, Teletype, and TomTom. Although intended primarily for automotive use, all comply with NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association) data protocols, and can therefore be used with marine software solutions for PDAs. These receivers are not marinized, but can be installed in a protected location such as under a dodger where there is good GPS reception. Any PDA can be splash-proofed with a protective vinyl bag, but if money's no object, consider a fully ruggedized PDA such as Tripod Data System's Recon 400—with a street price of roughly $1,500.

Instrumentation
Since introducing the first Tacktick digital compass for small racing sailboats back in 1996, the creative British firm founded by Clive and Mark Johnson, has remained the industry leader in self-contained, wireless sailing instruments. Today, Tacktick offers several distinct product lines: the Micro Compass series for racing dinghies, the Master series for sports boats and small cruisers, and as of late 2003, the Micronet system—a unique line of interfaced wireless sailing instruments intended for larger cruisers and racing boats.

All Tacktick display heads are sealed, airtight boxes containing the electronics, LCD display, solar cell, and rechargeable lithium batteries. The integral solar cell is potent enough to both operate the instrument and charge up the internal battery when sailing on a sunny day. However, after prolonged cloudy stretches, it may be necessary to "park" the instrument in a sunny spot on board or on home.

Depending on the series, Tacktick instrumentation includes a fluxgate compass (with a wind shift display feature and built-in countdown timer), boat speed, depth, and wind speed/direction. The Micronet systems for larger boats can incorporate a GPS transducer and NMEA interface unit, which will allow the instrumentation to interface with an onboard computer, plotter, and/or autopilot.

The Micronet display modules are self-powered and receive their information via wireless telemetry. Similarly, the masthead wind speed/direction is an autonomous unit with solar cells, lithium battery, and short-range radio all sealed inside. However, it should be noted that, unlike Tacktick's small boat instruments, a Micronet system will require an external 9-24 volt power supply to operate the below-decks transmitter that handles speed, depth, and fluxgate data, as well as for the NMEA interface unit (if installed). Speed and depth transducers are conventional cabled units, and need not necessarily be supplied by Tacktick.

While strictly speaking, it's not entirely wireless, a Tacktick Micronet system should still be considerably quicker and easier to install than a conventional, full-function instrument package. Likewise, if low power consumption is a priority, this gear will be appealing.

Anchor and MOB Protection
In 2002, a Swiss company, Deep Blue Marine, devised a novel approach to anchor monitoring utilizing underwater sound signals to trigger an onboard alarm if the anchor starts to drag. The system consists of three components: a display and processing unit mounted aboard the boat; an acoustic thru-hull transponder not dissimilar to a sounder transponder; and a rugged underwater unit that attaches with shackles between the anchor and anchor chain.

The underwater unit is made of cast bronze and sized to be stronger than the anchor chain or rode. It contains a sealed capsule housing a motion detector (accelerometer), batteries, and a second sonic transceiver. Whenever anchor movement is detected by the accelerometer, the information is transmitted acoustically back to the boat and shown on a graphic display. If the movement is large or abrupt enough to exceed a pre-set threshold, an audible alarm will also sound.

Deep Blue's AnchorAlert system will also measure and display the straight-line distance from the boat-mounted transducer to the anchor unit by measuring the round trip time for two-way acoustic communication. The principle is similar to sonar ranging, except that the anchor unit produces an active "reply" rather than a passive echo.

In principle, Deep Blue's system should be less prone to false alarms than either GPS or radar-based anchoring monitors because it detects only actual anchor movement, not the swinging of the boat caused by wind and tide.

Deep Blue Marine has more recently unveiled a manoverboard alarm and recovery system, again based on acoustic signaling principles. A small device worn by each crew member will send an acoustic signal back to the vessel if a MOB incident occurs. A display at the helm reveals the distance to the victim and the direction relative to the boat’s bow.

Full-on Networking
As wireless computer networking grows by leaps and bounds on land, it's only natural that similar technology is making its way aboard boats. More and more marinas are offering wireless Internet access; and even non-marine "hotspots" are sometimes accessible at exceptionally long distances over water.

Most so-called WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) systems are referred to as 802.11b networks. Each computer on the network has its own miniaturized transceiver and special software for handling data. A majority of the wireless-enabled laptops and PDAs currently being used on board for e-mail and Internet applications are identical to ordinary home/office hardware, and need not be discussed further here.

High-end race boats equipped with instrumentation that is interfaced with a belowdecks computer can now install Ockam's wireless networking software, which makes it possible to display and control all instrument functions using an ordinary consumer-level PDA. For that matter, Ockam's EYE system will support any number of PDAs so every crewmember could conceivably carry their own. It utilizes an ordinary 802.11b wireless router, and is compatible not only with Ockam's own hardware, but any system outputting NMEA data.

Ockam's competitor Brooks & Gatehouse (now owned by Simrad), is expected to introduce the aforementioned RemoteVision product at the Southampton boat show this fall. This handheld, wireless device incorporates an LCD screen, five control buttons, and even a built-in fluxgate compass so it can be used for taking bearings. However, its chief role is to interface with B&G h200 Hercules and Hydra instruments and autopilots. All data and instrument/pilot parameters can be viewed or modified from anywhere aboard.

Wireless TV Display
For sailors who really want their video, but don’t necessarily care to sit below while indulging, Sharp now offers the AQUOS 15" wireless LCD. Your cable, satellite tracking antenna, DVD player, VCR or whatever are plugged into the unit's base station, but the portable, battery-powered viewing screen will work up to 50 feet away. Whether this is worth about $1,700—roughly twice the price of a premium LCD television without the wireless feature—remains a matter of personal opinion.

Conclusions
The applications for wireless technologies are nearly boundless. We purposely didn't cover one emerging area in this article—on board security systems (for vessel tracking, anti-theft, and fire/sinking protection etc.)—due to the fact that those systems are primarily used by and marketed to the owners of larger yachts. Nonetheless, rapid evolution in the wireless arena indicates that although the cost-benefit equation for some classes of products may not currently work for many sailors, there's an excellent chance they'll be much more affordable before too long. Already, products like Tacktick's Micro Compass Kit are in use aboard many 12- and 15-foot daysailers.

Certainly wireless products have the potential to simplify onboard systems, and conserve power. But perhaps the greatest benefit this technology brings to sailing is the enhancement of safety afloat. The added security of wireless crew overboard alert systems, anchor monitors, or for that matter, the ability to control the anchor windlass from anywhere on board, can go a long way toward keeping sailors safer and more enthustiastic, and thus more confident about their boating.

 

Also With This Article
"Diagram of Tacktick's Micronet System"
"Wireless on the Road"

Contacts
• ALK Technologies, 888/872-8768, www.alk.com
• Brookes & Gatehouse, 727/540-0229, www.bandg.com
• Coastline Technology, 44/0/1943 830 399, www.coastlinetechnology.com
• Deep Blue Marine, www.deepblue.ch
in the US: Ascend Marine, 865/671-1000, www.ascendmarine.com
• Garmin, 913/397-8200, www.garmin.com
• Hewlett Packard, 650/857-1501, www.hp.com/go/ipaqnavigation
• MioTech, www.mio-tech.com
• Nautamatic Marine Systems, 800-588-7655, www.nautamatic.com
• Navman, www.navman-mobile.com
• NKE, www.nke.fr
in the US: Euro Marine Trading, 800/222-7712, www.euromarinetrading.com
• Ockam, 203/877-7453, www.ockam.com
• Pharos, 310/212-7088, www.pharosgps.com
• Simrad, 425/778-8821, www.simrad.com
• Teletype, 800/717-4478, www.teletype.com
• TomTom, 978/287-9555, www.tomtom.com
• Tripod Data Systems, 541/753-9322, www.tdsway.com
• Tacktick, www.tacktick.com
US distributor is Layline, 800-542-5463, www.layline.com

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