Smart Phone Onboard

For our July 12, 2011 show, Ben Ellison of Panbo: The Marine Electronics Weblog told us how smart phone technology is rapidly impacting the marine industry.

(Show page is also listed here.)

“I’m fascinated with electronics,” said Ellison. As a blogger and writer, he is regularly testing out equipment on Gizmo, his lobster trawler in Camden, Maine. A self-professed “extreme case,” Ellison has found a lot of kindred spirits who comment regularly on his blog.

Ellison provided us with a survey of some new products, starting with Maretron’s N2KView software app for the iPhone. “This started out as PC software,” said Ellison, “but now it’s being developed for iPhones, Android, and tablets, to provide a full monitoring system. I took part in a live demo recently and was able to check on a yacht in Fort Lauderdale, and even turn a light on and off.”

What’s the appeal? “Owners like to be connected to their boats. They worry. They want to know what’s going on, and smart phones make that connection much easier.”

Digital Yacht is a U.K. company that is now developing BOATraNET, a small low-power Linux computer, set up as a wireless navigation server. “BOATraNET’s apps will allow smart phone and tablet users to access all the boat’s manuals and charts,” said Ellison, “and the appliance itself can be set up with its own wifi hot spot on the boat.”

Ellison said it may seem that boat owners are going slightly nuts, but it makes sense. “Think of all the stuff we do online–send email; share pictures; look at news, weather, and entertainment–that’s all multiplied on boats, and smart phones can serve an owner in many ways.”

On the entertainment side alone, fusion systems allow an owner to place a smart phone in a waterproof dock and have access to the same music found at home. “Plus, it’s still phone,” said Ellison.

“There’s also a Simrad/Lorance hub that allows a smart phone to connect to a bright screen chart plotter, turning it into a screen for videos and movies. Standard Horizon offers a plotter with wifi built in so it can communicate directly with the tablet or phone. We’re going to see a lot more of this.”

In the automotive industry, said Ellison, electronics has become a selling point. In the marine industry, electronics are more likely to be aftermarket, but that’s changing. Sabre Yachts (Sebago, Maine) is now offering “Launch Pad” which provides fully searchable copies of all of the vessel’s manuals on it.

“Also the owner can take photos of any problems and send them directly back to Sabre,” said Ellison. “Sabre is working on this with Yacht.com which can provide all that database information to builders, owners, and dealers.  When a boat goes up for resale, the whole history of the boat is readily available.”

One concern is that marine-oriented devices need to be able to cache data and synch up to allow for those times when connectivity is lost. This means that owners are installing wifi boosters and other devices to keep that loss to a minimum. Again, smart phones come into the equation because they can often provide the internet connection for other devices.

For the high end of the electronics monitoring market, Ellison recommended Palladium technologies (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), creators of iSiMON and SiMON2 systems monitoring tools. “These products include programmable and logic controls,” said Ellison, “and they are fully integrated with iPads.”

What more would Ellison like to see? “I think the Holy Grail of this market is a bright screen weatherproof tablet, heavy duty, with the power of an Android. I used to encourage people to run out and get this stuff, but now I say ‘Wait wait wait’ because we’re not ready to replace multi-function screens.  The apps are good, but the tablets don’t work in bright light, they aren’t waterproof. Still they’re great accessories. Also, touch screen is not what you want to do when you’re driving a boat.”

For navionics, though, a number of mobile applications are available. “There are some very reasonably priced charts for smart systems. They are not full-fledged navigation, but they will let you plan routes and then keep that data.”

Smart phones can also be used with systems such as Global Star’s Spot Connect satellite messaging device. “This means you can send a text message by satellite to shore. You can even put it on Twitter,” said Ellison. “There are also satellite modems coming out that provide two-way communication.”

Ellison commented that he’s been thinking about how boatbuilders can deal with these changes. “One way, ironically, is to put in more room in boats for wires help users with all this wireless stuff. These devices need antennas, chargers, ethernet cables, and cable chases. I hear from a lot of frustrated owners who need more room for cables and electronics to support their phones and tables, and they need the additional antenna to make it all work for them. And some need a whole closet just for chargers!”

NOTE: Ben will also be part of a panel discussing this topic at IBEX 2011 in one of six marine-electronics seminars being produced by the National Marine Electronics Association.

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