Electronics 2007

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It's a plug & play future say specialists looking at the next generation of electronics

Our electronics special not only provides a look at what’s new today in plotters, radar, sonar and more, but also predicts the remarkable things the next generation of electronics will be capable of doing

Speculating on the future development of technology can be an enjoyable mental exercise for a journalist and might provoke some useful comment, debate or at least amusement among those responsible for designing the next generation of the technology.

Marine electronics that reach the market in the next few years will offer more capability and will be more reliable and easier to install. In general, they also will cost less in constant dollars. (I’m an engineer and unwilling to forecast inflation.) Products for small boats and for the flybridges or tuna towers of large boats will be much like what we have today but will have displays that are easier to see under difficult viewing conditions.

Virtually everything will be waterproof to JIS7 or IPX8 standards (submersible). Some new combination units — smaller in size but similar in capability to Standard’s CPV350 combined GPS/chart plotter/fishfinder/DSC VHF — will be available at very attractive prices. Much of the new equipment will use short-range radio links like Bluetooth, which will, for example, eliminate the need to run signal wires from the control/display unit to the Bluetooth-equipped sonar module. The module will be connected to the transducer with a short cable and will require only a connection to 12-volt DC power.

Forward-looking sonar — capable of displaying an image of the seabed ahead at distances great enough to be useful for slow-speed navigation in uncharted waters — will make exploration of areas such as the Bahamas much less stressful. Data from this type of system, combined with already-available side-looking imaging sonar, will make it possible to automatically produce and to real-time augment GPS-referenced bathymetric electronic charts of the areas being explored.

Engine instrumentation on boats equipped with computer-controlled engines will be integrated with the electronics suite. Fuel-consumption and propulsion-efficiency displays will recommend optimum power settings to meet a variety of criteria, including minimum cost, while taking into account both the cost of fuel and the cost of engine maintenance. Automatic station-keeping systems will be available for vessels equipped with vectored thrust propulsion systems, such as the Volvo Penta IPS or Cummins MerCruiser Zeus drive. In some installations the GPS-derived position information will be enhanced with local area precision data signals of the type used by surveyors, transmitted on FM radio station subcarriers. Such systems could allow virtually automatic docking with accuracies of less than an inch.

Some DSC VHF radios will offer the option of short message signaling, instant e-mail between boats and between boats and shore stations. Automatic Identification System, or AIS, displays will be built into many DSC VHF radios and will display traffic information on chart plotters. Many new hand-held VHF radios will have integral GPS receivers and will provide DSC functions, including the automatic DSC mayday feature that is supported by the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system.

Display panels will more closely resemble the best of today’s computer screens, providing higher resolution and higher contrast ratios. The screens will be clearly visible under virtually all conditions, even when the user is wearing polarized sunglasses. The current use of toward black-box systems — where data acquisition functions are housed in single-purpose modules (radar, sonar, satellite information, weatherfax, etc.) and feed information to a central processor — will become more prevalent.

Organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays now used in special, typically small-size applications, such as digital cameras and some automobiles, may become available in sizes suitable for televisions. Three characteristics of OLED screens make them particularly attractive for marine use. Like a CRT the image is viewable from almost any angle. The contrast ratio can be very high, making it easier to see fine detail in the image, and since each pixel on an OLED screen emits light, the image can be very bright without requiring the intense backlight needed to make LCD images viewable in sunlight.

An alternative to the conventional display may emerge in the form of a miniature monocular viewer similar to those being used by the military. In this application, the viewing device likely would be attached to the visor of a cap, enabling the user to see its infinity-focused image by looking slightly to one side (see image Page 34). The high-resolution OLED screen will display the information now presented on conventional LCD navigation screens: charts, radar, sonar, etc. The infinity-focus of the image on the screen will allow the user to superimpose the on-screen data on the visual scene without creating the eye fatigue that occurs when the eye must constantly shift focus from near-field to far-field images. Equipped with earphones and a mic and connected to the vessel’s systems over a wireless link, putting on the cap would allow the wearer to use the VHF radio without having to divert attention from the navigation information display.

Information from low-light-level television and near infrared detectors will be combined with chart plotter, radar and sonar data to provide the helmsman with a marine version of the enhanced/synthetic vision head-up displays coming into use in commercial aircraft. Operating in conjunction with AIS, this system will significantly reduce the collision hazard that exists during periods of restricted visibility.

Complex installations will rely very heavily on self-organizing wireless networks, WiFi and Ethernet. Data acquisition modules will be controlled and will deliver the information they acquire to the central system wirelessly, eliminating the need for interconnect cables, often the most time-consuming and tiresome part of an installation. The modules will be hard-wired to their sensors and will be connected to the boat’s DC power system. This approach will eliminate (to the delight of those who install equipment on sailboats) the large-diameter cable that connects the scanners of most of today’s radars to the processor units.

Adding modules to a system will largely be a matter of installing the new device and making it “discoverable” on the network. As with many of today’s black box systems, there will be a choice of operator controls; discrete knob and keypad, trackball/button, touch-sensitive screen or computer mouse — all connected wirelessly to the central computer.

The vessel’s security system will use wireless links between the various sensors and the main control/alarm panel. Monitored functions for unoccupied vessels will include door and hatch security, motion detectors, fire and smoke detectors, AC and DC voltage monitors, temperature monitors for refrigerators and freezers, bilge water monitors, and, where appropriate, “geofencing” monitors of boat position. Man-overboard monitors will operate by continually verifying the presence of personnel on board, in addition to the more conventional water-activated man-overboard alarm.

The way in which comprehensive systems are built will change dramatically. The central computer, today an integral and usually custom-designed part of the system, will be replaced with a standard off-the-shelf computer module such as the Mac mini. The use of a standard computer, with its internal SuperDrive, will make it easy to update software using a CD or DVD, or, off the air, using a WiFi link. The use of the standard computer will create an opportunity for the development of special software beyond that offered with the basic system. For example, custom software could enhance the system’s radar or sonar performance in particular or unique areas of operation. The use of a standard computer also could free the system from dependence on a single type of cartography, allowing the user to choose whichever product he or she judges best for a particular navigation challenge.

The relatively low cost of mass-produced computers also will encourage the use of redundant central computers, adding to overall system reliability. Depending on the design of the system the central computer also may serve as the vessel’s entertainment system, extracting music and videos from its external terabyte hard drive and distributing the information wirelessly throughout the yacht.

The need to visually inspect fluid levels in propulsion engines, gearboxes and gensets (too often overlooked by some boat owners) will be significantly reduced with the use of automatic fluid level sensors — many of today’s car engines have no fluid-level dipsticks — and video sensors that will monitor the exterior of engines and gensets for fluid leaks. Extensive data logging, already part of most new-generation marine diesels, will be expanded to include additional vessel systems. Remote viewing and analysis of data will become the preferred way to address system problems. (There would be no need to take your car to the dealer to have the technician plug the test computer into the car’s data system if the car were equipped with a WiFi Internet link.)

WiMAX (World Interoperability for Microwave Access), based on the IEEE 802.16 standard, is expected to provide wireless broadband Web access over most metropolitan areas, likely including over water out to distances that may exceed cellular telephone coverage.

Overall, tomorrow’s marine electronic systems will look about as they do today; after all, the users — us — won’t really change very much. However they will be easier to install, easier to modify or add to, easier to use, and more reliable. Overall, they will be an even bigger bargain than today’s equipment. However, even the sum of all the possible and likely improvements in marine electronics and propulsion will not eliminate the challenge to safety created by inattentive boat operators or those who haven’t acquired the skills needed to become mariners.

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.