Battle of the networks

The three big players in electronic networking are Furuno, Garmin and Raymarine. Each have expanded from making high quality stand-alone electronic navigation equipment to focus on system integration. These players, along with Simrad, Lowrance, Northstar and a couple of others are doing more than setting shoreside technology afloat. Their hardware may differ a bit in electronic architecture, but all base their systems on multifunction displays and high data rate cable links that can access information from sensors that include radar, GPS receiver, depth sounders and more. Any of the networked hardware output can be accessed on a multifunction display, either individually or simultaneously &mdash giving users fingertip control of more information than ever before.

As with all good things, there are a couple of downsides to networked electronics that go beyond the substantial price tag attached to the components. One of the biggest issues is human sensory overload, by no means an electronic flaw. It is linked to the avalanche of data that all of these systems offer, and it can cause a user to navigationally lose the forest for the trees. The cure lies in understanding how to manage the information, prioritizing what’s the most important input(s) at any given time, and learning how to sideline the rest. For example, in overcast conditions the radar operator wants detailed accuracy, and the sensitivity and selectivity of modern digital radar has the ability to reveal a small skiff or lump of granite shrouded in fog. Unfortunately, a display screen clogged with radar, DCS plotter graphics, fish finder info and a virtual dashboard showing engine instrumentation will clutter the small display and reduce the value of a superior radar signal.

Display size is one of the biggest differences between commercial digital charting systems and those found aboard recreational craft. The professinal wants both detail and a wider field of view &mdash attributes that lead to safer navigation. The recreational boater’s big screen option is still half the size of what is used by the commercial world. Add this to the clutter factor and it is clear that network usage is a little like ordering food in a good restaurant &mdash there is a menu full of options, picking and choosing becomes as important as what’s available.

Some feel that the zoom function offers a chance to compensate for a large-scale digital chart displayed on a small screen, and to some extent that’s true. But when a paper harbor chart is shrunk to a 6-inch diagonal dimension, a user must either zoom in to see specific detail or zoom way back out to gain a wider angled perspective.

The International Maritime Organization is the governing body of commercial shipping, and their technical support specialists decided that size does matter. They set much larger minimum dimensions for screen size on approved Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems. Many small craft navigators recognize that screen surface area is a limiting variable, and carefully arranges what is and is not displayed. Adding multiple monitors may be costly, but it can really increase safety as well as user friendliness. The past few years, I have sailed aboard a cruising ketch that had two Raymarine C80 flat screens mounted side by side under a hard dodger and one at the nav station. The two on deck provided dedicated screens for radar and a digital chart plotter. This arrangement made tricky passages in tight confines, especially in bad weather, a much more user friendly experience, not to mention added a valuable display redundancy.

Furuno NavNet 3D

Furuno won the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s prestigeous 2008 Innovation Award for its NavNet 3D product. Feedback from users of this latest network upgrade has reportedly been equally upbeat. The 3D head-on and top-down view system offers a preload of all domestic National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts (raster, vector and bathymetric) plus satellite photos and an array of plug and play hardware ranging from sonar to masthead instruments. There are three network options that cover the bases from small boat coastal cruisers to mega yacht owners. The new radar system is like having two stand alone units on board.

For decades, the name Furuno has been synonymous with high quality radar units and their leadership in this part of the industry remains as strong as ever. Their new line of digital radar systems range from 2 to 25 kW and come with true dual range functionality. Not only can these units select a dual range to monitor, but they do so simultaneously, transmitting and receiving on both ranges &mdash operating as if they were two independent units.

Plug-ins are Ethernet cable linked to one or more multifunction displays or larger marine monitors. Furuno’s Time Zero digital cartography is instant up with no drawing time associated with seamless shifts from one chart to the next. The biggest difference however is the 3D view and forward looking as well as top down perspective. It literally changes how a navigator views his or her surroundings.

The visual image is a blend of raster, vector and bathymetric charts that allow satellite photos, weather maps and even radar overlays to augment the picture. This expansion of what digital charting has to offer is more than simply a graphics upgrade. These new tools are an integral part of the 3D nav system and represent a value added that is well worth using. Just short of being a holographic image, this new depth conveying medium communicates channel boundaries (the granite ledges of Maine, shoals fringing Cape Hatteras, and the entrance to San Francisco) better than ever before. Furuno is preparing 3D cartography for regions outside U.S. territorial waters. In areas where 3D cartography is not yet available, conventional 2D raster and vector digital cartography works just fine.

Garmin marine network

Garmin has also staked its reputation on a tried and proven Ethernet approach to their plug and play network. The Garmin network interfaces with a full range of electronic navigation components. They have launched an installer-friendly plug and play set of components eliminating much of the voodoo linked to first generation networking. Sensors connect to multifunction displays with either a proprietary Ethernet cable or, in some cases a serial cable. Assembly of the network is straight forward and certainly ranks as a do-it-yourself endeavor. Start with a multifunction device (MFD), which includes the 3205, 3206, 3210 chart plotters. Quick connect cables can link a couple of other input devices such as a radar or depth sounder. You can also add a network port expander, linking more cables with additional multifunction displays, and, as with all the networks covered in this article, each MFD is capable of calling up data from every sensor, even those linked via a NEMA 2000 link.

Garmin features BlueChart g2 cartography with aerial and satellite photo enhancement providing a very easy to read graphic display. Fish eye and mariner’s eye perspectives do not quite give the three dimensional feel of Furuno’s 3D, but they are very useful navigation tools. Online updates and fairly complete world wide coverage round out Garmin’s cartography and add to the upside of the system.

The flip side of the coin, however, is the reality that chip cost for the long distance cruiser can be significant, especially when a crew spends short periods of time in each location and is coastal cruising rather than long distance passage making, which is the preferred routine. Those who’s cruising grounds are closer to home and who’s itineraries are more repetitive, will find cartographic costs much less of an impact.

Raymarine SeaTalk high speed

The third generation of Raymarine’s SeaTalk networking handles the interconnectivity of radar, plotters, sounders, a Sirius satellite weather receiver, Automatic Identification System, Forward Looking Infrared and much more. There’s no problem with latency when integrating instrument signals and auto pilot commands. Their rendition of an Ethernet approach can handle NEMA 0183 and 2000 connectivity with non Raymarine equipment, and it affords a convenient means of wiring engine monitoring sensors to the SeaTalk network. There is a capability to link video signals and provide live engine room monitoring, deckscapes, infrared video and satellite TV.

Like its competitors, networking Raymarine electronics is a user friendly plug and play exercise. Two displays can be connected with cables and an inexpensive optional coupler. Up to eight sensors can be incorporated in the network by using Raymarine’s efficient router. As with Furuno and Garmin, cables are costly but well sealed, and as many a pro will attest to, failure of an electronic device is often a result of a connection rather than a flaw in the device itself. By using self-sealing factory-made cables, such problems are greatly reduced.

Raymarine is anything but a one-size-fits-all electronics company, and a key feature of their product lineup is the array of systems that they offer. Ranging from small boat A-series gear to the C and E network systems, one characteristic carries over, and that is user friendliness. Even their top of the line G-series, with its portable wireless keyboard and large screen displays follows the sensible SeaTalk high speed network protocol. The G-190 19-inch digital display is crisp, bright and the epitome of what a chart display or radar screen should be. However, with an MSRP of $12,000 it will be slow to make its way onto the bulkhead of most 45-foot and under sailboats and power cruisers.

Screen clutter is a big deal, and with networking comes the challenge of understanding why, in many cases, less is more. As mentioned earlier, recreational DCS screen size is small when compared to what commercial navigators deem essential, and this holds true up until price tags approach five digit significance.

This is why anti-networkers make an interesting case for a KISS “keep it simple stupid” philosophy. Far from being Luddite in nature, these mariners rave about their state of the art digital chart plotters and stand alone radar units. They read depth from a depth sounder display and the engine panel renders information about the health of the internal combustion process. There are no cables interconnecting gadgets and each screen has a dedicated role.

Multifunction comparisons do not infringe on the space of other information, and above all, full screen radar and chart plotter info remains continuously displayed on the same screen. These voyagers cringe at the thought of a TV program playing on their radar screen and have no interest in an arcade-like graphic dashboard showing a digital picture of an analog dial. When it is time to log the engine oil pressure, they don’t mind looking at the instrument panel. They point out that trouble with the radar has no impact on the chart plotter or visa versa. Their arguments underscore that there are at least two different ways to embrace modern technology.

To get a better feel for how boaters are responding to nav-networking, I swung by the shop of a local Annapolis, Md., electronics expert, Phil Mitchell, for a chat about networking trends. He verified that sailors and power cruisers are by no means reluctant about linking electronics and the new systems are indeed user friendly. He pointed out the rugged reliability of the dedicated plotter navigation approach, as compared to the greater computing power, but added vulnerability of laptops sporting navigation software. Mitchell sees the best answer as having both on board, but acknowledges that budgets usually do not allow that level of flexibility. He also feels that buying the biggest display one can afford or going to multiple screens is a big step forward, and regardless of the brand chosen, being sure that the chart detail and coverage match up with the type of sailing that is planned.

Visual watch keeping

The sailor’s view of the surrounding horizon, like the power boater’s pilothouse window vista, remains the primary focus of safe navigation. Networked electronics are, at best, a facsimile of the real world and any navigation routine that backseats visual watch, keeping in favor of screen gazing could be a step in the wrong direction.

Don’t get me wrong, radar in pea soup fog and the omniscient GPS guided cursor marching across an LCD screen are extremely useful. In fact, as we grow closer to virtual reality mimicking the real world, the more reliance will be placed on gadgets rather than the gaze out the pilothouse window. Tech advocates point out that the human retina and optic nerve are limited by their sensitivity and the spectrum that they can sense, so why not rely on radio, microwave, infrared and acoustic measurements of the surroundings?

The answer is that we should welcome all equipment that adds valid and reliable input to the navigation process, but at least at the present time the black boxes are meant to augment to navigator’s craft, not replace his or her function. So the science becomes an art form as the data is handled, evaluated, prioritized and accepted or rejected by the navigator making decisions about vessel location and heading.

Ralph Naranjo is a freelance writer and photographer living in Annapolis, Md.

By Ocean Navigator