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Real World Electronics

New technology is powering the next generation of radars, fishfinders, plotters and more

The marine electronics industry continues to amaze with its ability to produce ever more capable, easier-to-install and easier-to-use products.

Furuno FCV1150

Progress is most evident in chart plotters, radar, fishfinders and the on-screen display of complex propulsion systems and vessel-related information. New radar and sonar technology using digital signal processing produces images previously unobtainable even with the most costly professional-level products, often at prices lower than the previous versions.

Equipping a boat with the latest electronics can be an exciting task. The latest equipment will often replace what was state-of-the-art just a few years ago with something smaller, lighter, more power-efficient, easier to use and, most important, more capable of delivering the navigation information and safety we all seek. The improvements in both radar and sonar (fishfinders) will be immediately apparent when you compare the images they deliver to the equipment that is now on your boat. Improvements in other equipment may be less dramatic, but is no less valuable.

The introduction of Furuno’s NavNet 3D system was without a doubt the most significant electronics introduction during the last year. (Although announced at the fall 2007 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, it actually entered the market in spring 2008.) Raymarine’s HD radar and its new G Series paralleled what Furuno introduced and was followed up with the redesign of the A Series.

A bit later in the year, the results of the creation of Navico — assembling B&G, Eagle, Lowrance, Northstar and Simrad into an electronics armada — began to emerge. Navico’s market impact became evident at the Fort Lauderdale show in October. Garmin consolidated its very broad market position with the introduction of VHF/DSC radios and autopilot products.

Bottom line: This is a great time to upgrade your boat’s electronics. The following summaries will aid your orientation in this new world.


Furuno’s NavNet 3D, with its Time Zero screen technology and HD radar, created a new standard for the top end of the electronic navigation market when it was introduced. Furuno is maintaining its pace of technological advance with the introduction of new software, MaxSea TimeZero, and new products, including the FA-50 Class B AIS transponder and two new stand-alone color LCD sounders, the 10.4-inch FCV-295 ($2,995) and the 12.1-inch FCV-1150 ($4,595).

The company has added to the sonar capability of the NavNet system with the DFF3 high-power digital network sounder equipped with the Furuno Free Synthesizer transceiver, providing a two-channel multifrequency option and its AFM (auto fishing mode) and ACM (auto cruising mode). Power options are 1, 2 or 3 kW, providing depth ranges that can reach 3,000 meters. The SC-30 GPS compass (price TBD) introduced as a part of the NavNet 3D system adds significantly to the usability of the new FCV-1150 sounder, using its three axis rate gyros and acceleration sensors to provide heave compensation, eliminating sea motion artifacts from the display.

Furuno’s range of six “FI” stand-alone instrument series is now reaching the market in significant numbers. The series units, each $595, can display virtually any information present on the NavNet 3D or any NMEA 2000 system. The instruments display wind direction (FI-501 and 502), multiple data (503 and 504), course and heading (505) and rudder angle (506). Combined with the other NavNet 3D products and systems, Furuno can provide a full complement of electronics for virtually any yacht or small commercial vessel, and serve the needs of SOLAS vessels with its expansive IMO-approved products.


Garmin’s marine line, one of the most comprehensive in the industry, has been expanded with the introduction of two new VHF/DSC radios, the VHF 100 ($249.99) and VHF 200 ($399.99), and the GHS 10 ($199.99), a wired remote handset microphone for the VHF 200. Both fixed-mount radios provide Class D DSC operation.

Garmin VHF 200

The VHF 100 uses an NMEA 0183 communication interface with a companion GPS receiver and chart plotter. The VHF 200’s speaker/microphone is removable, and the radio provides a 20-watt two-way loud hailer amplifier. The VHF 200’s GPS receiver and chart plotter interface provisions include both NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000. The LCD screens on both radios measure 3.2 inches, ensuring that both user-selected data and incoming DSC message alerts, including mayday calls, are easy to see at a distance.

The GHP 10 autopilot (price unavailable) system’s Shadow Drive technology makes it particularly easy to use, especially for boaters new to autopilot control, since turning the helm automatically disconnects the pilot, allowing instant manual control of the boat. The pilot can be re-engaged by steering a steady course. System communication is via an NMEA 2000 bus. Borrowing from terminology familiar to users of the Windows operating system, the autopilot configuration and setup procedure is aided by Dockside and Sea Trial “Wizards.”

The new GPSMAP 620 ($999.99) and 640 ($1,199.99) are portable 5.2 inch (diagonal) color LCD (800-by-480 pixel) chart plotters that can function in both marine and automotive modes. The 640 version comes with BlueChart g2 data and City Navigator NT road maps for North America. Selection of operating mode — marine or automotive — is automatically selected when the unit is inserted into the mount on the boat or in the car. The model 640 can provide XM satellite marine weather, XM Nav Traffic information, and radio with use of the optional GXM antenna (and subscription).

The GWS 10 ($599.99) wind sensor system combines a rotating cup anemometer, wind direction sensing vane, and barometric pressure and temperature sensors that connect to the GMI 10  ($535.70) multifunction color LCD via an NMEA 2000 bus. The GMI 10 can support more than 24 NMEA 2000 data sentences and 20 NMEA 0183 sentences. A GFS 10 fuel sensor can be used with the GMI 10 or with a chart plotter to monitor both fuel flow rate and the amount of fuel in a tank.

iPhone 3G

The Apple iPhone 3G ($99 to $299) is a sailor’s electronic Swiss Army Knife. Want a full-function chart plotter? Load the iNavX application ($49.95 from the Apple App Store). Tide and current info? Download TideApp (free), l Tide Graph ($1.99) or AyeTides ($14.99), and all you need to know will be on the phone’s screen. Sailing along the coast within cell phone range? The AeroWeather app will let you read the current aviation weather reports (METAR) and forecasts (TAF) for nearby airports. (It’s also great when traveling — you will know as much as the pilot of your aircraft about the weather at your destination.)

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Want to see the latest info from the NOAA weather radar that serves your location? Use the iPhone’s

Safari Web browser to access and select the radar nearest your location. The opening page of the site provides access to a satellite view of the area in which you are sailing and a wealth of other useful information. Google Earth will allow you to view the latest satellite image of the next port you plan to enter.

Want to know your boat’s trim or heel angle? The Clinometer app ($0.99 at the iTunes Store) makes your phone into a precise angle measurement tool and a two-axis bubble level (±0.1 degree). No more arguments about how far over you were heeled on that last tack.

Store some sea chanteys in the phone’s iPod app, and keep the crew (and yourself) in proper seagoing mode. Keep checking the Applications Library in the iTunes Store; there are thousands of programmers working to enhance the marine utility of your iPhone (and with some limitations the iPod Touch).

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Ask the search-and-rescue professionals, and they will tell you that your ditch bag should contain three electronic devices: an EPIRB and/or PLB, a strobe light and an Iridium satellite telephone. The EPIRB and PLB are universally acknowledged lifesaving devices. Coast Guard SAR pilots will tell you a strobe light can make the critical difference when they are trying to locate a vessel, life raft or a person in the water, even in bright daylight. And experience has proven the value of an Iridium satellite telephone in an emergency, including one that justifies a mayday call. The Iridium phone will make it possible for you to communicate directly with the Rescue Coordination Center, providing them with information that can be critical in determining the success and efficiency of the ensuing rescue effort.

Iridium 9555

Iridium’s new model 9555 hand-held sat phone (starting at $1,200) makes it easy to make Iridium a part of your on-board kit, serving both routine and emergency communications needs. Smaller by 30 percent and 27 percent lighter than the preceding 9595A, the new phone’s lighted LCD, integral speaker phone and mini-USB data port make it ideal for routine voice and e-mail (up to 9 kbps) communications. (A multichannel version of the Iridium system, Iridium Open Port, can combine three channels to provide data speeds that can reach 128 kbps.) A range of service plans are available, from short-term rental contracts lasting a few weeks to high-use rate agreements that make the cost of calling home relatively inexpensive.


The scope and intensity of competition in marine electronics outstrips any other part of the yachting world, resulting in significant changes in the competitive position of many companies. We have recently seen the creation of Navico, an organization created to combine and focus the capabilities of a number of specialist companies. The range of products available from this group — comprising B&G, Eagle, Lowrance, Northstar and Simrad — encompasses every segment of the market, from freshwater fishing to the largest yachts and commercial vessels.

Lowrance HDS-10

Many of the Navico companies are pioneers in their fields; B&G and Lowrance, for example, began serving boaters more than 50 years ago. B&G continues its long history of providing top-of-the-line sailing instruments, sensors, central data processors, displays, autopilots and tactical navigation software for sailing yachts.

Lowrance and Eagle share many products, with the Eagle brand marketed primarily for the coastal and inland-lake markets. The Lowrance marine product range has been significantly improved, becoming a full-line provider with the introduction of the HDS Highest-Definition Broadband fishfinders using DSP (digital signal processing). Available with 5-, 7-, 8- and 10-inch screens, the chart plotter models offer cartography choices that include Lake Insight, Nautic Insight, and Navionics Gold, Platinum and HotMaps Platinum ($599 to $2,769). System options include Sirius XM weather/radio and 2- or 4-kW digital signal processed radar.

NMEA 2000 connectivity is provided for low-speed data exchange, while Ethernet is used for high-bandwidth data networking. Equipment pricing and features cover the market, from the small, open fishing boats popular on rivers, lakes and near coastal waters to systems suitable for large cruisers.

Northstar products include the well-known 8000i integrated navigation system, as well as a range of plotters offering all of the function options, including radar and sonar. The well-regarded autopilots, instrumentation, VHF communication and fuel management products originated by Navman are now available under the Northstar brand. A new Class B AIS, the NAIS 300 ($1,149), is equipped with an integrated GPS receiver, greatly simplifying installation. When connected to a Northstar chart plotter/radar display, the NAIS 300 will provide positive identification of the radar returns from AIS-equipped vessels and at the same time provide invaluable navigation planning and collision avoidance information.

Northstar NAIS 300

Navico’s Simrad products, well known from their use on high-end yachts, include the GB40 and GB60 Glass Bridge, NX40 and 45 Navstations, and a complete range of radome and open-array radar scanners. The MX marine products acquired by Navico as part of the purchase from Brunswick Corp. adds a series of IMO-compliant GPS navigation products ($2,800-$4,900), including gyrocompasses, to the Simrad Professional product range.


Raymarine has introduced a new version of its A Series GPS chart plotter and dual-function GPS chart plotter/fishfinder range. The resolution of the LCD in the smaller A Series units was greatly improved, from QVGA (320 x 240 pixels) to VGA (640 x 480). Sunlight visibility, a challenge for any LCD, was improved, using the performance of the more costly C Series products as the benchmark.

Improved GPS receiver technology is incorporated in the design of the system’s internal GPS receiver/antenna. Data acquisition speed was increased, both for the “cold-start” and “hot-start” cases, with concurrent improvements in tracking sensitivity. Also, WAAS capability was included to enhance accuracy.

Raymarine A70D

The new units include a built-in library of either coastal or inland lake and river Navionics charts, with provision for the installation of CF card cartography that can include the Navionics Platinum and HotMaps Platinum series, plus support for Navionics Gold+ charts with their high-resolution 2-D bathymetric charts for fishing.

Raymarine improved the new A Series fishfinder products by building the DSP (Digital Signal Processing) sonar module into the main unit. An “Ultra Wide Beam” asymmetric 200 kHz sonar transducer substantially expands the volume of water interrogated by the sonar beam. Mounted in a transom bracket, the transducer can be rotated from its normal “wide beam athwartships” position to an orientation that increases the fore and aft scanned area. Conventional dual-frequency 200 kHz/50 kHz transducers are also available.

The units comply with waterproof specification IPX-6. The standard for IEC 529 for water protection — similar to IPX-6 — states that the device is protected against heavy seas and must withstand waterjets projected at all angles through a 12.5-mm nozzle at a flow rate of 100 liters per minute at a gauge pressure of 100kN/square meter for 3 minutes from a distance of 3 meters.

To ensure compatibility with older Raymarine equipment, the A Series was designed to interface with SeaTalk 1 equipment (using a converter module) as well as NMEA 0183 devices and the new SeaTalk system (essentially NMEA 2000 using Raymarine connectors rather than the NMEA 2000 type).

The physical appearance of the new A Series units was changed to create a more rectangular overall shape, reducing the number of controls from 14 to 11 and making the system easier to use. The card slot that formerly protruded onto the front panel has been relocated to the right edge of the housing, and the power key is now located adjacent to the other controls.

Manufacturer suggested retail pricing ranges from $1,075 to $1,999.


SPOT, a Satellite Personal Tracker, is both more and less than a personal locator beacon. It’s more than a PLB because, in addition to transmitting a life-saving “911” call for assistance to its monitor satellite, it can also be used to inform specific designated persons that you are OK, provide them with a periodic track of your location, or that you require their personal assistance. However, while a SPOT may resemble a PLB, it’s important to recognize that unlike a PLB (or EPIRB) it cannot directly contact the worldwide COSPAS/SARSAT system for search and rescue.

Receipt of a mayday transmission from any EPIRB or PLB by any of the COSPAS/SARSAT system’s multiple monitoring satellites will result in immediate activation of the worldwide Global Maritime Distress Safety System and, through that system, the assignment of the response to the most appropriate search-and-rescue center. A 911 call from a SPOT device will send an alert message via geostationary satellite relay to GEOS Alliance, a private company specializing in providing protection services for a variety of users, including marine and aviation interests. GEOS Alliance will then alert the appropriate public service access point, which may, at the option of the facility servicing the 911 call, be the Coast Guard or a local agency at the municipal or county level responsible for answering 911 calls for emergency assistance: police, fire or ambulance services.

THe SPOT personal satellite tracker can automatically inform friends and family that you are safe.

While a distress message from a SPOT device will likely be relayed to the most appropriate SAR facility, there is less certainty of that happening than when the transmitted distress message enters the GMDSS through its direct communication channel.

The SPOT satellite messenger sells for about $150 (MSRP is $169.95), less than a third the cost of a GPS-equipped PLB. While it can be a valuable safety asset, it’s important to recognize that the SPOT device is not built to the stringent standards required of all EPIRBs and PLBs and, therefore, should be considered an adjunct to and not a substitute for one of these devices. A $99.95 annual fee must be paid to activate the basic (plus an additional $49 optional tracking fee) message relay service, including the 911 message relay and the other routine messaging services that the SPOT can provide.

Anyone who needs to use the routine messaging capability of SPOT — the ability to notify others where you are (and that you are OK), to request assistance from an individual (family member or friend, not SAR personnel), or who wishes to use the extra-cost Track program to provide others with your updated position on a Google Map display — will find the cost of the device and the subscription expense a bargain. But make SPOT an additional safety/convenience device, not a substitute for an EPIRB or PLB.

Chuck Husick is an electronics engineer who runs his own consultancy in the marine and aviation fields. A former chairman and president of Chris-Craft, he holds a Coast Guard 100-ton license, sails a 46-foot Irwin ketch, and is a commercial pilot/flight/instrument instructor.

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.