Data display done right

Larger boats increasingly have some type of network with remote sensors for gauging tank levels, battery voltage, lighting status and a variety of other items that owners and captains need to watch. At the recent Miami Boat Show there were several of these types of vessel monitoring system packages on display. One of them, however, seemed not only to have a well-conceived system with plenty of sensors and capabilities, but to also have developed a great way to display the information. Displaying information concisely is a much-researched technique in the aviation world, where the vehicles move faster and there is less of a margin for error. Marine electronics companies have not always been as good at this task.

Vessel monitoring systems allow an owner to monitor what is happening on their vessels both when they are aboard and, given the right wireless/satellite connection, when they are not on board.

Only a few years ago electronic networks allowed marine electronics firms to use networked sensors and remote displays to show system status. Recently, monitoring systems have followed electronic charts, radar, weather data, etc., to PC-based systems. System monitoring software running on Windows can show a user the status of the various elements on a standard PC screen. A challenge for any system that is set up to display multiple parameters of data is presenting that data to the user in a way that allows the user to gather the most important data from the system first and to spot trends, allowing users to take action before problems occur.

One company that seems to have done a particularly good job with the task of displaying information is Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Krill Systems with its yacht instrumentation package. Company founder and president Casey Cox is the former vice president of engineering at the high-tech networking company Copper Mountain (since acquired by Tut Systems), which specialized in DSL network boxes. Cox had a Jeanneau 45.2 and always wanted systems monitoring capability, but found that the packages on the market were all geared to megayachts. “There was nothing for the 50- to 60-foot trawler or motoryacht,€VbCrLf Cox said. According to Cox, the Krill Systems product is specifically designed for that size vessel.

Krill’s system accepts inputs from sensors via junction boxes called Sensor Pods. These boxes can accept inputs, for example, from up to five sensors on the DC circuit side or five tank level sensors or 10 switched circuits. The inputed data is then sent, via ethernet, to a network switch and then to a PC running Windows XP and also running Krill’s Soft Display software. (NMEA 0183 navigation data needs to go to a RS422 serial port.) You can also skip the PC and use one of Krill’s DU840 dedicated displays, but we’ll concentrate on the PC-based system here.

The data from the various sensors and switches and circuits is processed in the Soft Display software and then displayed on the PC screen. For those of us who aren’t software enineers, it is in the display of the data that Krill’s system really shines.

The software can monitor and display data from the boat’s major systems: 1) the electrical system, 2) tank levels, and 3) alarms and switched devices. Each of these areas is given its own display screen (or all three can be viewed together, along with navigation data on one screen – more on the nav data below).

Monitoring boat systems is not new, of course. What is intriguing about Krill’s approach, though, is the clean way its software presents the information, allowing an operator to see what is happening with a glance. The electrical screen, for example, shows separate boxes for shore power, AC genset, house batteries, and starboard and port starting batteries. If the parameters for each box are good, then the level inside the box is shown in green. Should the parameter for that box fall below a user-settable level, the color in the box goes first orange then red. This immediately clues an operator to the fact that something is amiss. The operator can then look more closely and see a numeric amount displayed alongside a floating level-indicating arrow. Finally, the electrical flows to/from each device are shown by blue arrows. None of these ideas is completely original, but it is the way the entire system is put together and the effective way the data is dispayed that makes the Krill system worthy of note.

Similar to the electrical screen, the tankage and switched device screens show a similar approach to making information easy to access via the use of colors, graphic symbols and a clean, readable typeface. And, with an Internet connection, it’s possible for a boat owner to monitor his or her vessel from home.

One of the best elements of the Krill system, however, is the navigation display. Here there is a connection to the approach used to display data in aviation. Cox is a pilot and he wanted to use a similar approach to that used on aircraft. “I wanted to do something different, instead of putting up boxes with numbers in them,” Cox said. “Other than displaying depth, the data you need for a boat is the same as that shown in an airplane.”

The nav display looks like an aircraft “heads-up” display with a variety of nav parameters integrated into a single screen. At the top is the arc of a compass card, showing the boat’s magnetic course over the ground. At the center, under the arc, is a white triangle (matched by a white triangle on the magnetic arc) that shows the heading of the boat’s bow. Also displayed are a blue arrow that shows apparent wind speed and direction, and a yellow arrow that shows current speed and direction. Waypoints are shown as green Xs, which are connected by purple route lines. On opposite sides of the display are scales that display boat speed through the water and over the ground and depth. There is even more info. presented by the nav screen, but this summary gives you an idea of how much useful info. is clearly presented in one place.

The average Krill Systems installation costs roughly $10,000 and includes everything except for the tank level senders and an Internet connection. According to Cox, for that price Krill generally supplies four sensor pods, all the necessary wiring to the sensors and the ethernet cable required, plus an ethernet switch.

By Ocean Navigator