I may not be a super experienced sailor but I have had the opportunity to use a number of different boats, each of which have their own instrument and chart plotter setup (usually Raymarine) and I have noticed a few problems.
Never mind the (crazy) situation with X-band vs S-band radar, it’s frustrating enough that a Ramarine chart plotter won’t intact with a Garmin GPS antenna or a Simrad auto helm. It’s easy to see why proprietary protocols are used (vendor lock-in) and I would imagine a lot of sailors just accept the situation.
However, imagine the following scenario: you are chartering a boat for a cruise and you are expecting to cross a busy shipping lane like the English Channel. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could hire or borrow an AIS receiver and plug it directly into the chart plotter regardless of its make or model?
Similarly, a lot of gear in different ranges from the same company won’t work together. Again, it’s easy to see why – the manufacturer just wants you to upgrade to use that awesome new HD digital radar you saw in Yachting World magazine. In reality, your existing kit is probably powerful enough to support it or at least function like the old one (if it were designed properly).
A standard method of connectivity would be brilliant. What about USB? Or even better, TCP/IP? Ross Vision video switchers are TCP/IP based internally and they shuttle 1080p HD video around. Even complex data like radar images wouldn’t be stretch for the protocol.
Not only does each charter boat have a different setup of instruments, sensors and chart plotters, but the all seem to be configured differently as well. For example, does the depth read under the keel or under the surface? Will the chart plotter follow your movement? Wind/tidal vector display?
What I always wish there was on these different systems was an option for a sensible default configuration. You don’t want to reset radar calibration or AIS data about the vessel but it would be nice to be sure depths are in meters, distances in nautical miles, speeds in knots, etc.
Perhaps user profiles might be a good idea. Wouldn’t it be cool to carry your preferences on a USB stick to automatically get the system set up how you want it? Meh. Just an idea.
So you just got back from a transatlantic crossing and your chart plotter is showing you an awesome track it recorded of your route. What if you want to put it on Google Maps? Ah. I wish you luck with that. Certainly in the case of Raymarine, you can’t. Perhaps some chart plotters let you retrieve your data, but none of the ones I’ve used.
What about all those useful way points you identified on Google maps or on nautical charts? Can you get those on board? Chances are: no. Again, some models do support this but Raymarine does not in my experience. Similarly, good luck getting way points off the device as well.
Another application of the aforementioned user profiles?
I was sailing in Greece with my family over the summer and we had a Raymarine 435i chart plotter on board. We also had auto helm which was very useful and we used it a lot. We were warned before we left that the chart plotter needed to be on for the auto helm to work.
Well one day, the chart plotter crashed – silently.
Now, I can’t remember all the details of how it went down but I think it was a warm, sunny day, calm sea and little wind. We were probably also on auto at the time.
We had no idea the system had crashed until we poked our head downstairs for some reason. This is bad. What if we had been in the Solent in a storm? Well, we probably wouldn’t have used the auto helm in that situation but you must never assume anything!
When the system crashed, it was kind enough to tell us what went wrong. What would really be nice is some kind of alert like an anchor or low water alarm. What would be even better is a really really loud beeping sound to really catch your attention.
It’s the little things like this that make a good system a great system.
So What Do I Propose?
Well, I’ve already made some suggestions above and I’ve got my own ideas for a sort of open-source marine-electronics/navionics system. Maybe that’s a university project but it’s certainly something I’m interested in as I’ve been quite disappointed with some of the setups I’ve used in the past, especially as they cost thousands to purchase.
In a future post I’ll lay out my ideas for how such a system could be structured and some of the very cool things you could potentially do with it (head-up display anyone?</joke>).