Advances in integrated navigation

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The writer has updated his laptop system of two years ago with the latest equipment from Raymarine

The writer has updated his laptop system of two years ago with the latest equipment from Raymarine

When does it make sense to use a laptop to navigate, what features do you need, and how do you integrate it with your other instruments? I answered these questions in the July 2004 issue, but a lot has changed since then.

What hasn’t changed are the basics. Laptops have many features that make them ideal as chart plotters. They are relatively inexpensive, can be purchased with a large and very high resolution screen that brilliantly displays charts, and can be integrated to display and control radar, fishfinder and other navigational instruments. With a DC-to-DC power supply no inverter is needed, and power consumption of the latest models is very low.

In a nutshell, order the best screen offered, such as Dell’s 15.4-inch wide-aspect UltraSharp TrueLife WSXGA+ (1680x1050), a powerful video card, a processor designed for a laptop, such as a Pentium M or the newer Dual Core, and a gigabyte of RAM, and you will be delighted with the performance of your on-board navigational laptop. However, such a system is only suited for use at a navigation station below deck or in a pilothouse. Glare is a real issue in the pilothouse, so you will need to fit a visor over the screen, since even the best displays from vendors like Dell aren’t bright enough for daylight conditions.

Keep in mind that laptops with the largest screens, such as a 17-inch, use more power, and a DC-to-DC power supply may be unavailable. Relying on an inverter (DC-to-AC) is a bad idea, as I witnessed while on the Grand Banks Grand Tour to Alaska earlier this year. A new GB 44 was outfitted by the owner with an Outback inverter with its own battery bank. At an inopportune time, too much AC load blew a fuse on the inverter battery input post, shutting down the desktop PC running the chart plotter software. A laptop running on a DC-to-DC power supply is independent of the AC system, and the internal laptop battery is a backup. I should add that all the Raymarine devices described here are powered directly by 12- or 24-volt batteries.

For the July 2004 review I fitted my Grand Banks 42, Maramor, with a Dell Inspiron laptop running RayTech RNS version 5 navigational software. The laptop was integrated with a Raymarine high speed bus multifunctional navigational display on the flybridge, radar scanner, depth sounder, autopilot and GPS. For this review I upgraded the RayTech RNS software to version 6 (the latest), replaced the HSB display with an E-Series multifunction display, replaced the radar scanner with one that works with the new display, and added the latest Raymarine GPS antenna/receiver and an anemometer. Here is what I found.

The E-Series display

The E-Series sunlight-viewable, color, networked display is crisp and clear in the brightest conditions, and its features are superbly intuitive. The E-Series has no alphanumeric keyboard, which, in my opinion, has been to a large extent rendered obsolete by point-and-click navigation. Entering waypoints manually and assigning a name is easily done on the “keyboard” displayed on the screen for that purpose. I am of the view that Raymarine is correct in eliminating the alphanumeric keys in favor of the rotary control, track pad and other features on the control panel, and achieving the smallest physical dimensions for a given screen size.

To network the older HSB display with a laptop required an expensive PCMCIA card with special cabling and a PC/NMEA/SeaTalk interface box. If your computer had no serial port you also needed a USB-to-serial converter to connect the laptop to the interface box. With the E-Series, the integration with other E-Series screens, devices like a “black box” fishfinder and, most importantly, with your laptop is through SeaTalk High Speed, a plug-and-play Ethernet-based network. The data transfer speed is 100 megabits per second.

You can view SeaTalk HS as a standard LAN, or local area network. If you have only two devices to connect — an E-Series display and a laptop, for example — Raymarine supplies a simple crossover coupler. For systems with more than two networked devices, Raymarine sells a marinized LAN switch that accommodates up to eight devices. Simply plug in to your laptop’s Ethernet port, as you would in the office or to your home router, and you are in business. SeaTalk and NMEA data to and from depth sounders, anemometers, autopilots and the like are passed between networked devices over the LAN, so there is only one connection to your laptop. Buy the Raymarine shielded LAN cable and switch (more than two devices) or crossover coupler (just two devices), and make sure any additional cables and couplers required are shielded.

The E-series display has other features not fitted on Maramor, such as the ability to display satellite weather, video from cameras and NMEA 2000 data from machinery. You’d be hard-pressed to think of something useful for the E-series to do that it can’t do very well, in my opinion.

The GPS

The GPS system available in 2004 was the Raychart, which consisted of an antenna and a display/GPS receiver. I had to replace the antenna (it had failed), which has a permanently attached 10-meter coaxial cable that plugs into the display/GPS receiver. On Maramor this antenna is at the top of the mast, and replacement meant pulling out the old cable and resnaking the new down the mast and forward to the helm, more than a minor undertaking.

The new Raystar is both an antenna and a receiver (no display) and comes in two versions to provide GPS data using either the NMEA protocol or Raymarine’s proprietary SeaTalk protocol for use and display by your laptop, autopilot, etc. The cable (multistrand, not coaxial) conveniently plugs into the antenna/receiver, making replacement much easier. The Raystar is far faster than the Raychart in providing a fix on startup, and I no longer get annoying no-fix alarms. The photograph shows how I mounted the Raystar on the flybridge windscreen using a nicely made mount from Newmar Power (www.newmar power.com). The reception from that conveniently reached position is excellent, so I no longer need to deal with the mast and a long, difficult cable run.

The Raystar GPS data is displayed on the E-Series screen and the laptop. Also, the old Raychart display can be used as a slave to display the Raystar data as well. For those of you with a Raymarine autopilot, you can display on the control heads such data as bearing to waypoint and distance to waypoint.

Finding: the Raystar GPS is a big improvement over the previous offering.

A note about GPS and interference: I observed a few years ago that when in the vicinity of Logan Airport in Boston my GPS died, and ship’s masters have reported to me that they have had GPS antennas damaged beyond use when in the vicinity of U.S. naval combatant vessels. When strong interference like this is expected I plan to put a tin can over the antenna to act as a Faraday cage to protect it until it is safe to resume use.

The radar scanner

The radar scanner for a Raymarine HSB display doesn’t work with anE-Series display. Raymarine offers an upgrade for certain scanners, and details are available at www.raymarine .com. I opted to buy the newest scanner, and it was worth the investment.

This summer I encountered pea soup fog after departing Stonington, Conn., on eastern Long Island Sound. In response to the conditions I proceeded at idle, between 4 and 5 knots. It is surprising how many trusting souls are fishing in these conditions from overloaded boats with no lights and no audible signal on open waters, oblivious to the danger. Fortunately, I could see them clearly on both the E-Series screen on the flybridge and the laptop in the pilothouse. Few responded to fog signals or made any attempt to make their presence known. The Raymarine scanner is up to the job of not only “seeing” these small boats but also plotting them with course, speed and closest point of approach.

The RayTech RNS software

There are many good chart plotter software packages to choose from. I chose RayTech RNS because it integrates seamlessly with the Raymarine instruments on Maramor. Version 6 displays C-MAP NT+ charts (but not C-MAP MAX) from a C-MAP USB chart chip reader or from the hard disk, Navionics charts from a Navionics USB reader, and NOAA RNC raster charts. The NOAA raster charts can be downloaded free at www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov , or you can buy a DVD with more than 2,300 NOAA nautical charts and 704 Army Corps of Engineers river charts for $49.50 at www.capjack.com . But the E-Series screen runs only Navionics cartography and only from the chip slot on the screen. You must buy Navionics charts if you are integrating your PC with the E-Series.

On the HSB system, I could run the C-MAP NT+ charts on the laptop and access them on the HSB display on the flybridge. You cannot do this with the E-Series. If you integrate your laptop with an E-Series display you must run the Navionics charts on the E-Series, which passes them to the laptop via the LAN connection. This is one negative, albeit minor, in the new system. The integration is achieved with the help of a utility that makes the setup very user-friendly. Finding: RayTech RNS version 6 installed easily, doesn’t crash, is user-friendly, and integrates seamlessly with all the navigational devices on board.

The Navionics charts

The C-MAP charts that were supported by the HSB system were excellent. Indeed, C-MAP cartography is widely used by commercial vessels. Raymarine switched to Navionics charts with the E-Series, and they are very satisfactory charts as well, although they have quite a different feel to them, particularly with respect to depth soundings.

I bought the Platinum version, which costs substantially more than the Gold+ vector charts. Having tried all the features of the Platinum charts, I would opt for the Gold+ without the Platinum bells and whistles. The Platinum’s panoramic photographs enhance situational awareness, especially when navigating unfamiliar waters, but the 3D view — at least at this stage of its development — appears to me to detract from situational awareness. However, the 3D view may be very useful for non-navigational purposes such as fishing. The Platinum version also offers satellite photo overlay, port services and points of interest, and the Coast Pilot.

Other solutions

Captn. Jack’s, which is now owned by Maptech, is offering a touch-screen Motion Computing tablet computer with a 12.1-inch daylight-viewable display. Years ago I installed a touch-screen radar on a commercial vessel, and I am of the opinion this is a very good way to go in the marine environment.

Raymarine offers a waterproof USB navigation keyboard designed specifically for RayTech RNS 6 and a waterproof 15-inch sunlight-viewable XGA monitor that can be connected to the laptop, enabling use of a PC-based system in more exposed conditions. Captn. Jack offers reasonably priced TFT LCD monitors, including touch-screen versions, for below deck use that are considerably brighter than a laptop display.

I did the installation described here myself, but that takes a lot of interest in technical details and planning. If you are a serious cruiser who wanders far afield, you need to know these details anyway to troubleshoot when out of reach of help. This technology has reached a stage where if you can install a small LAN at home or in the office, have some facility with the tools of the trade, and are willing to study the manuals, you can upgrade your navigational suite.