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NMEA Yesterday and Today

What started as a small group of dealers in the 1950s has evolved into a driving force in the marine electronics industry
As boats get more complex, NMEA standards enable today’s electronics to communicate with each other.

As boats get more complex, NMEA standards enable today’s electronics to communicate with each other.

At the New York Boat Show, in 1957, a group of 50 electronics dealers got together to find a way to strengthen ties with electronics manufacturers. Shortly after its founding, the members invited manufacturers to join their organization, the National Marine Electronics Association.

What began as a trade organization changed in 1980 when NMEA members decided to develop a protocol to enable autopilots to interface with Loran units. Robert Freeman, an autopilot manufacturer, was responsible for much of the early work on the NMEA 0180 standard, the group’s first. That protocol morphed into NMEA 0182 before becoming NMEA 0183, which is still in use for sharing information between devices, and has been updated numerous times.

The NMEA, a 501 (c)(6) non-profit organization, has only four full-time employees, one of whom is Mark Reedenauer, who is president and executive director. It relies on industry volunteers to help develop and implement standards like NMEA 2000 — already on its third version — and OneNet, along with implementing other initiatives. The board of directors has 13 individuals and eight active committees comprising board members and member experts, who collectively contribute thousands of hours of work for the collective good of the industry.

Training and education are part of the NMEA’s mission.

Training and education are part of the NMEA’s mission.

Sean Hatherley, senior vice president of Navico and an NMEA director-at-large, wants the public to know that the organization is about more than standards. “One of the misconceptions is that we are only a standards organization,” Hatherley says. “Our main focus of late has been on education and training, strengthening the industry to better serve the consumer.”

Mark Reedenauer at the Helm

Reedenauer, who has been NMEA president and executive director since 2015, started his career at NorthStar Technologies in 1999. He has also worked at Brunswick and Airmar. He joined NMEA in 2011 as the documentation specialist and oversaw the Marine Electronics Installer training programs and all NMEA technical standards, including updates to NMEA 2000, 0183 and 0400.

“My elevator speech is [that] the NMEA does four things,” Reedenauer says. “We work to increase our membership, we create standards, we provide training, and we hold an annual conference.”

Formerly a revenue-generator, the Conference and Expo is now a member benefit.

Formerly a revenue-generator, the Conference and Expo is now a member benefit.

Training

With the help of Don Derryberry in the early ’80s, NMEA created the Certified Marine Electronics Technician program. Its mission was to help consumers identify technicians who had specific electronics installation training.

In the early 2000s, Mark Young, who at the time was the NMEA chairman of the board, expanded the certification program for electronics installers. Today, there are four electronics installer training certifications: Basic Marine Electronics, Basic NMEA 2000, Advanced Installer Training and Advanced NMEA 2000.

When the Covid-19 pandemic raged, NMEA shifted to online classes. One of the unintended benefits is that with the pandemic receding, NMEA is keeping the two basic courses online, which allows it to reach more people than only holding in-person classes. Every other month the classes alternate between in-person and virtual learning. Advanced classes are always taught in classrooms.

The group also influences applicable legislative and regulatory processes.

The group also influences applicable legislative and regulatory processes.

Workforce Development

“Our members have told us one of their main problems is a shortage of qualified workers,” Reedenauer says. “So we’ve taken several steps to help. The organization just received post-9/11 GI Bill or V.A. reimbursement approval for our training classes. So any veteran can take our classes, pay out of pocket, and the [Veterans Administration] will reimburse them at the non-member rate.”

In March 2022, NMEA announced a partnership with Veterans Florida to help transition military veterans into the mainstream workforce.

One recurring problem for NMEA members is employers who invest in the training of new employees only to see them go off on their own or to another company. Some member companies are now implementing non-compete clauses to protect themselves.

The Standards

A fundamental change in marine elec­tronics occurred with the adoption of the NMEA 2000 standard, which was developed in the late ’90s. Unlike the 0183 standard, which defines how electronic signals are sent along a serial data bus, NMEA 2000 uses a controller area network, or CAN, bus and allows devices of different kinds and brands to “talk” to each other in a common language, after some initial pushback by manufacturers that wanted to keep their protocols proprietary. The beauty of NMEA 2000 is that devices are connected on a common “backbone,” which simplifies installation. Smaller devices don’t even need a separate power supply.

Steve Burdett, a managing member of Coast Marine Marketing who has been in the industry since 1975, gives a lot of credit to Maretron’s network wizards, CEO Rich Gauer and vice president Frank Emnett, for spending an incredible amount of time to make NMEA 2000 a reality and educating people how to implement it.

OneNet, released in 2021, is an ethernet-based standard capable of transmitting up to 10 Gb/s, compared to NMEA 2000, which is limited to 256 Kb/s, making OneNet ideal for handling large streams of data from sources such as video and radar. OneNet isn’t designed to replace NMEA 2000 but will work in concert with it. In developing this protocol and with updates to NMEA 2000, great emphasis also has been placed on cyber security as hackers are in a race to steal data.

To get a product certified on NMEA 2000 and OneNet, manufacturers must buy a tool — for either $2,000 (member’s price) or $4,000 — that sends and receives messages back and forth to determine if it’s compliant. Like most new technology, OneNet products will likely appear on arge yachts before trickling down to smaller boats.

Increasing Member Benefits

Another NMEA initiative is to increase member benefits to make joining more attractive. All members get free training sessions that range from one to five per year, based on membership level. Manufacturers get unlimited training sessions per year.

“We have [also] revised our thinking about the annual NMEA Conference and Expo and changed it from a revenue-generator to a member benefit,” Reed­enauer says. “It shifted our way of thinking, and as a result, attendance has gone up. We purposely budget for a loss now. If a member takes advantage of all the benefits, it’s a wash. It won’t cost them any money to be a member of NMEA.”

What started as a humble gathering of marine electronics dealers in 1957 has grown to more than 800 members covering all phases of the industry. Its stated goal is to enhance the technology and safety of electronics used in marine applications and increase the profitability of its members. It’s safe to say mission accomplished. 

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.

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