Pirate EPIRB and solid sensor

Walking the aisles at this year’s Miami Boat Show, it was easy to feel sympathy for the product managers of the many marine electronics firms displaying their wares. The competition is fierce, the product life cycle is sometimes measured in months, and pressure to keep up with fast-moving technology is intense. What can a product manager do to stand out from the crowd?

As I approached the booth of a well-known maker of safety gear and rescue electronics, ACR Electronics, I saw something that suggested ACR’s EPIRB product manager had cracked under the pressure. After all, weren’t EPIRBs safety gear? And wasn’t that equipment, by convention, usually orange or yellow? Yet here was an EPIRB that violated the citrus color rule. It was jet black.

Was this black EPIRB an effort to get noticed, to cut through the noise by making a design statement? To invoke a sense of mystery and high-tech sophistication? Perhaps it was the beginning of a trend in colored safety gear. Would we soon be seeing purple life rafts, cyan strobes and puce PFDs?

Actually, the explanation for the black EPIRB (on close inspection it was actually navy blue), involves not an industrial designer’s bold statement but the considerably less flashy International Maritime Organization. Within the IMO’s Global Maritime Distress and Safety System there is a provision for a special type of EPIRB called a ship security alert system (SSAS) unit.

Unlike a standard 406 EPIRB that broadcasts a basic distress signal (and a GPS position if the EPIRB is GPS-equipped), the SSAS EPIRB “sends a signal that says you might be in distress but your vessel is not,” said Tony Smith, international marketing director for ACR. “The different coding is sent to the LUT (local user terminal) and MCC (mission control center), where it is recognized as a security signal.”

The rescue center informs search-and-rescue forces that a vessel’s security has been compromised by pirates or terrorists and sends along the vessel’s GPS position. The signal means instead of rushing help to people in the water because their ship is sinking, SAR forces are dealing with a possible criminal or terrorist situation. “You are sending guns instead of medics,” Smith said.

Called the Thunderbird SSAS, ACR’s ship security unit comes in navy blue because ACR wished to differentiate it from their vessel distress EPIRBs. “There is no IMO requirement for it to be orange or yellow as with a standard EPIRB,” Smith said.

While it may look like merely a black EPIRB, the Thunderbird is not intended to be interchangeable with one. The unit is not designed to float free, since it’s hardwired into its mounted bracket. The Thunderbird is designed for mounting out of sight so any boarding criminals would not be aware an alarm had been sent. This feature is further enhanced by an external antenna and by two switches that can be remotely mounted.

If you were on a sinking vessel and you had no other EPIRB (unlikely, but strange things occur at sea) then you could attempt to use the Thunderbird as a standard EPIRB. But according to Smith, “It wouldn’t be an easy thing to take it along with you [into a life raft].”

This product is primarily intended for use on commercial vessels, but since some oceangoing yachts are nearly as big as commercial ships these days, megayachts are becoming interested in carrying SSAS EPIRBs.

The list price for the Thunderbird is $1,950. And to paraphrase the famous quote about Henry Ford’s Model T, you can have it in any color you want as long as it’s navy blue. While it doesn’t have an internal GPS, it can use external GPS input.

I guess I’ll have to wait for those cyan strobes and puce PFDs, after all.

Another interesting product seen at the Miami show modifies a familiar fixture on voyaging sailboats by dropping all the moving parts. Eliminating moving parts from marine equipment is always a useful goal. The fewer parts, the less likely a piece of gear is to fail. How often do solid-state GPS receivers or HF radios wear out? This issue is even more lofty when you consider gear at the top of the mast, which is not a location most voyagers are eager to ascend to, especially when underway.

A new product from Airmar Technology Corp. transforms that ultimate set of perpetually moving parts, the spinning cups of the anemometer and the swinging vane of the wind direction sensor, into a solid-state device. The Airmar Ultrasonic Weatherstation uses high-frequency sound to gauge wind speed and direction.

A series of sound beams is passed between a group of sensors. The sound beams traveling with the wind arrive a tad earlier than the beams traveling against the wind. From this data, and some sophisticated calculations, the Weatherstation can determine apparent wind speed and can also calculate apparent wind direction. A second model has a built-in GPS receiver, allowing it also to find true wind speed and direction.

The idea of using ultrasound to measure wind speed isn’t new; several companies developed this type of wind sensor in the 1990s. However, they were not intended for marine use. The Airmar product is the first specifically designed to withstand the rigors of living at the masthead. In addition to wind data, the Weatherstation can provide barometric pressure, temperature, dew point, relative humidity and wind-chill temperature, and it supports both NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 output. The suggested retail price is $1,000 for the sailboat unit, which incorporates an inclinometer and a Windex indicator. The Ultrasonic Weatherstation is scheduled to ship in summer 2005.

By Ocean Navigator