Electronic chart trends

Even as electronic charting (EC) becomes a fact of the nautical life, the programs continue to evolve rapidly. PC navigation software continues to embrace more data sources and reach out to more marine instrumentation. In some ways, it’s becoming more integrated and simpler; in other ways, it’s getting even more complicated. In short, EC is moving in many directions.

A major trend this year is undoubtedly EC weather display, with Nobeltec, Raytech, Maptech, and the Cap’n all joining MaxSea in offering this capability. Typically, the user of a charting program can go to a web site and download a free regional data file of wind, pressure, temperature, and system information that will then overlay and animate on a zoomed-out chart. Also typically, the charting company offers more data and e-mail delivery on a subscription basis. For instance, owners of Nobeltec’s Visual Navigation Suite (VNS) 6.0 can sign up for andquot;Bronze,andquot; andquot;Silver,andquot; or andquot;Goldandquot; subscriptions, ultimately ending up with rich data – even including ice charts – and long forecast sets. Raytheon’s new Raytech 3.0 and Maptech’s latest Offshore Navigator both offer similar schemes, and both can include Orbimage sea-surface temperature and plankton bloom data useful for ocean racers negotiating the Gulf Stream (and to sport fishermen chasing big ones).

Maptech adds a feature called the andquot;personal weather buoy,andquot; which allows a user to select spots along their route where they will be able to see forecast data even when they are zoomed in on their passage chart.

The Cap’n’s weather feature is different, simply adding an efficient browser interface with sister company IMAPS’s innovative Web weather overlays (see marineplanner.com). Meanwhile, the developers at MaxSea have been offering free and subscription weaandeacute;her data display for a couple of years (see www.navcenter.com). Much better known in their home European waters, MaxSea is also one of only two programs capable of graphic weather routing (the other is Raytech’s Sail Racer package).

MaxSea is currently working on a system to transmit the relatively large weather e-mails via SSB as an alternative to expensive Inmarsat offshore e-mail and slow inshore cellular modems. They are not the only company trying solve this weakness of weather via e-mail. Maptech has partnered with aviation weather supply company Echo Flight to offer data files through Orbcomm’s LEO sat network; and a Raytheon spokesperson recently said that they too are working on a way to send reasonably priced weather e-mails worldwide. None of these systems may come to fruition this year, but they are exciting, particularly as they could include relatively simple two-way e-mail communications.

Weather integration

At any rate, EC weather display is definitely here. Vectorized color information shown on a crisp chart should be much easier to understand than a weatherfax, let alone the voice of andquot;Perfect Paul.andquot; The display possibilities are endless; at least one program has a andquot;dummy buttonandquot; that converts conventional wind roses into articulating arrows. We hope to write in some detail about weather display later this year in Ocean Navigator.

EC vendors continue to add imagery, data, and chart-updating systems. All the programs mentioned thus far can now read some form of 3D bathymetry, at least with an add-on module. Both RayTech and MaxSea have added support for C-Map’s new CD charting system, with which a user gets a free world map for planning purposes and then can open any region of detailed C-Maps simply by purchasing a code (both these programs can also read C-Map cartridges with added hardware). The Cap’n developers are working hard to integrate NIMA’s worldwide vector charts into their charting programs for their various U.S. government customers, work that should eventually show up in their consumer products.

RayTech 3.0 adds support of SoftChart raster images, which are now updated on a monthly basis. Nobeltec just introduced quarterly Passport chart update CDs for $99 a year per region, or one update for $49. Maptech’s professional-level weekly chart-updating service is fully operational, and a significant number of yachtsmen have subscribed.

Maptech has also updated its Chart Navigator planning software with a useful features like andquot;Chart Packetandquot; printing, and includes it in every edition of its also substantially upgraded ChartKit 2001 CDs, which bundle charts, photo maps, coastal topos, and several NOAA publications into one package. The publication of $50 mini regions provides navigators in boat-dense areas like San Francisco and Narragansett Bay with a rich and inexpensive introduction to EC.

Black box buzz

Just as developers are using the graphic power of PCs to build potent charting programs, they are using the PC’s input/output flexibility to host whole navigation networks. Call it the black box buzz, another definite trend. The notion is that all sorts of sensors can be read and controlled from a PC box, which in turn can be displayed and managed from anywhere on the vessel.

A Cap’n optional module interfacing its EC with video cameras has been so popular that the company has rolled it into the latest version. So-called web cams are particularly cheap and simple because most of the display and control work is done by the black box (PC). Cap’n developers report that one cruising trawler uses a stern-mounted camera to see overtaking wake-makers in the Intracoastal Waterway, and a singlehander uses one to see his belowdecks radar on his under-dodger laptop.

Both the Cap’n and VNS offer radar interfaces that can overlay the radar image on a digital chart. The Cap’n uses a PC board to become a secondary display to numerous compatible regular radar units. VNS can be the primary display and control of Si-Tex’s headless, yes andquot;black box,andquot; RadarPC, now available with two- or four-kW antennas.

Numerous small companies are offering bright, weather-resistant displays and wireless controls to make a PC charting possible on deck. The new SeaView MM-1500, for instance, is a submersible 15-inch sunlight-viewable display with a built-in touch pad and touch buttons to emulate mouse and custom keyboard commands. More system integrators, companies like OceanPC, can set up a boat with a compact under-shelf Micropilot or a shock-mounted dual-everything Armada, both with RF mice/keyboards and all the necessary software.

Meanwhile we’re seeing the predictable morphing of chart plotters into networked systems with PC-like power. The new Si-Tex Genesis combines plotter, radar, fishfinder, and even TV output to one or more displays with remote controls. Instruments using Raytheon’s HSB and Seatalk networks can switch radar/plotter/fishfinder controls and displays, and a hooked-in PC running RayTech 3.0 can share live routes and track any system data. Navionics’s latest chart chips bring NOAA tide and current prediction even to small stand-alone plotters.

EC and hardware developers are all working on charting that integrates PCs to handheld devices. Maptech will soon introduce software that will let you plan routes on your PC and then download them with raster charts to a GPS-equipped handheld Windows CE unit. IMAPS is working on a similar product that would move routes and SoftCharts from marineplanner.com to a Palm OS device. Both Lowrance and Garmin offer rudimentary PC charting programs that can load routes and vector maps to certain of their handheld GPSs.

PC central?

Even as PC-based EC and traditional marine electronics mingle and network, there are two distinct architectures emerging for whole-boat systems. One, like Raytheon’s, is a distributed network of instruments with a PC on the periphery used primarily for planning. The other, like systems from Ocean PC and what many do-it-yourselfers have assembled, puts a PC at the center of the network, allowing display of any data anywhere. Raytheon envisions a marine PC that looks like one of its high-end plotters only with the power and display variety of RayTech; but they are not committed, citing problems with controls and operating system stability. They could have, but didn’t, quote the old query of Windows critics, andquot;Would you want to fly on a plane running on Windows?andquot;

It’s a point well taken, and it’s interesting to note that the dramatic twin-PC, twin touch-screen On Guard integrated bridge system just introduced by Sea Ray – which displays virtual engine gauges, video feeds, a custom version of Maptech’s EC, and more – runs under Windows, but under a closed version that will not permit installing other software. The very power and flexibility of PC navigation can be seen as its weakness. Someone fitting out a serious seagoing vessel these days will almost certainly have a charting computer somewhere; the big issue is whether it sits in the middle or on the edge of a navigation network.

Not all electronic charting is evolving in 2001. We have to bid farewell to both ChartView and MarineMap, which will no longer be developed. Both programs are still usable. In fact, both have interface features that we would like to see elsewhere – and we might, particularly in future versions of VNS. Developers of both programs are now part of Nobeltec, and users can upgrade to VNS 6 for the same price as a VNS 5 owner. Already added to VNS 6 is ChartView’s ability to compute arrival times, and even best departure times, based on tide and current predictions.

While there is a trend, typical of a maturing industry, toward fewer and bigger EC companies with more products, that’s not the whole story. This is, after all, software, and can still be produced in a small shop. In fact, the cruising couple who wrote the Macintosh-based EC NavimaQ recently released version 3.0 and are working on a tide program. Pete Palmer reports that his NavPak product is in andquot;continuous development as usualandquot;; he’s sending lots of inexpensive monochrome digital charts to his voyaging clientele, and he’s very excited about the eventual advent of public NIMA vector data.

There is even a sort of underground of do-it-yourself techies who are doing electronic charting with general-purpose shareware GPS programs and self-scanned or otherwise andquot;foundandquot; charts. We found one fellow on a newsgroup claiming he cruised the East Coast using a $50 program called OziExplorer and sample charts downloaded from NOAA’s mapfinder.com (which are stamped all over with andquot;not to be used for navigationandquot;). There are many ways to skin a cat, or in the memorable words of a long-forgotten band, EC is moving andquot;forward in all directions.andquot;

By Ocean Navigator