The race to ‘smart’

Innovation awards reflect industry’s success in marrying on-board electronics with mobile devices


The marine industry is keeping up with the fast-paced integration of electronics and mobile devices, as evidenced by two recent product innovation contests.

About half of the 60 entries in the 2011 International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference Innovation Awards were in the electronics, electrical systems and mechanical categories, says Alan Wendt, chairman of the Innovation Awards committee. “When you look at the marine industry for the past 10 years, electronics has been the most innovative of all categories,” Wendt says. “Look what has happened with smart phones and iPads. This technology is what’s driving innovation in most of our cultural applications, so it was natural for that trend to migrate over to recreational marine.”

In the recent Design Award METS competition at the Marine Equipment Trade Show in Amsterdam, Digital Yacht’s low-cost wireless iAIS receiver (about $500 through marine discount retailers) captured top honors in the electronics category. The receiver is capable of linking to the latest iPhone, iPod and iPad devices and, with a free app, the mobile device also collects data that include depth, speed and wind.


Electronics integration — the sharing of sensor and data streams — has been “one of the shining spokes in the marine industry wheel,” says Dave Laska, an electrical systems and electronics expert and co-owner of L&L Electronics (www.llelectronics.com). “Every manufacturer strives to design their products to be one or two steps ahead of their competitor, and integration of technology facilitates smarter products.”

A battery charger from Charles Industries that manages four banks simultaneously and Raymarine’s multifunction display with mobile-device connectivity earned top honors in the electrical systems and electronics categories, respectively, of the IBEX contest, which is judged by members of Boating Writers International. The mechanical category seemed to reflect new American Boat and Yacht Council and federal environmental rulings, with several entries of fuel shut-off systems and inlets. The Attwood Universal Sprayless Connector was chosen for its simplicity, ease of adaptation and global application, according to the judges.

Even in the mechanical category, many of the products are considered innovative because of their electronic devices and/or technologies, Wendt says. “A number of the components that go into the mechanical systems are derived from advances in electronics,” he says. Today’s wireless engine-monitoring systems are an example.

Technological advances enable electronics manufacturers to present new features annually, says Wendt, who has been a judge in product-rating contests every year since 2003. “Some of the other areas, like boatbuilding, might go five or six years before you see something really new,” he says.

Case in point: display screens. Manufacturers have adopted technologies such as color and high definition. They’ve improved waterproofing, and with thin film transistor technology the images on the display can more easily be seen in bright sunlight.

With the emergence of the iPad, the industry seems to have embraced touch-screen capabilities, Laska says. That was not the case five years ago, and makers of all-in-one screens or multifunction displays were fending off naysayers who argued that the boater loses the entire system if the display fails, he says.

Now, technology integration has allowed manufacturers to use multifunction displays in a “nav center that is in the beginning phases of being integrated into a consumer’s smart phone and iPad via on-board, wireless and Bluetooth technology and applications,” Laska says.


Manufacturers’ efforts to design products that are NMEA 2000-compatible also have driven the development of electronics, Wendt says. NMEA 2000 is the National Marine Electronics Association’s communications protocol that allows devices to share information.

“We’re only just seeing the benefits of NMEA 2000 in the past couple years in the marine industry,” says Roger Marshall, one of the 10 DAME judges. “I think it comes down to making it easier for the less experienced boater to operate a vessel. And by using a lot of electronics, such as an iPad, which people are familiar with, and inputting all your system data, it does become simpler.”

Electrical systems key

The industry has seen a need for better electrical systems to manage the power needs of the new devices, says Lyle St. Romain, general manager of Charles Industries’ marine and industrial group. Charles captured the innovation award in the electrical systems category with its Intelligent Marine Charger, the IMC 40.

“The electrical side of a boat is black magic,” says St. Romain, who worked for 14 years at Raytheon and Raymarine. “It’s probably the part of a boat that people are least familiar with. I don’t care if you have been boating for three years or 30 years, the electrical side is very confusing. Most people don’t comprehend the magnitude of what is going on down below with the electrical system.”

Ed Sherman, curriculum director of educational programming and delivery for the ABYC, agrees. “The high-tech electrics field has really been developing quickly,” says Sherman, who was at IBEX and METS. “Vetus has a motor for one of its new bow thrusters that absolutely blows your mind. We’re really getting into some cool applications of these technologies.”

Sherman is referring to Vetus’ Rimdrive, which he examined at METS. The propeller forms the rotating part of the electric motor (rotor) and the fixed winding stator is mounted in the tunnel, according to the company.

Sherman gives another example of believe-it-or-not technology: “Seacocks with an electric motor that allows you to set them up with a micro-switch to open and close remotely,” he says. “That is where we are going, and pretty soon that seacock will be controlled via touch screens, or better yet, the touch screens of iPads or Droids.”

Another device judges applauded is Dometic’s “bypassable variable frequency drive that reduces or, in their words, eliminates the start-up surge of the compressor and then disconnects itself, eliminating harmonic distortion and RF interference,” Wendt says. Preventing power surges that destroy equipment boosts the reliability of electrically driven products, Marshall says.

Sherman, who amends and adds standards to the ABYC’s highly referenced standards and technical information, must keep up with all of the changes to do his job. “It’s challenging because things are moving so rapidly; it’s hard to grab the tail long enough to analyze what is actually going on,” he says. “Before you create a standard that will dictate how things are done you have to have enough product stability to figure out the potential problems. That is the scary part for us. There are a lot of new applications, and we know we need to provide some guidance.”

Lithium battery technology is an example. “The vendors have different takes on how a battery management system should function,” Sherman says. “We’re finding new problems and issues we haven’t foreseen.”

For instance, lightning recently struck a sailing yacht that used lithium-ion batteries, taking out its electronics, Sherman says. “The boat was towed into port, and then the captain plugged in to shore power and the battery management system went into maximum charge and caused the batteries to go into a thermal runaway,” he says. “The boat burned up. It was a multimillion-dollar mistake and that’s the kind of stuff that’s going on out there.”

Sherman has pushed for additional backup systems on board because of the increased reliance on electronics and electrically powered devices and machinery, which include propulsion packages. “The problem is you are going to take out a lot of equipment with a power failure and boats don’t have the redundant systems like you find in airplanes,” he says. “That’s something we need to work on.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.


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