Wireless revolution extends to lanyards

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AutoTether automatically shuts off the engine if the operator of a boat is pitched overboard

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Kill-switch lanyards are a simple safety device designed to turn off the engine should the operator fall overboard. But the limitations in movement from being tethered to the helm can lead to lanyards going unused.

A couple of New England boaters who also happen to be engineers came up with what they think is the solution — the wireless lanyard.

“The AutoTether brings boating up to the next level of safety,” says Anthony Viggiano, who created the product with fellow Rocky Hill, Conn., resident Marty LoSchiavo. “With cars, first there were seatbelts, and then we upgraded to airbags. In boating you have PFDs, but there was nothing beyond that, until now.”

It all started at a party several years ago when Viggiano’s close friend, Charles Primiano, told a story about how he almost died when he fell out of his center console fishing boat in Long Island Sound in early spring. The story goes that Primiano was in his 16-foot 1996 Hydra-Sports center console about 250 yards off Fisher Island in Long Island Sound when he sat down and slowed the boat to about seven knots. The wind blew his hat off and when he turned around to see where his hat had gone, his jacket caught the throttle and revved up the boat.

“At the same time, a giant wind hit the bow and launched him right out of the boat,” says Viggiano. “He said the water was so cold that he knew if he didn’t get back on that boat, he would be a dead person. Since the boat was an older model, it started circling back around. He told me he had one shot to get back in that boat.”

Primiano, who was not wearing a life jacket, managed to lunge forward and grab onto the bow rail, but knew he couldn’t hold on for much longer as his hands grew numb. Fortunately, a wave came along and helped push him right back into his vessel.

“As he was saying how lucky he was, I asked him, ‘Well, weren’t you wearing your lanyard?’ and he responded, ‘Do you wear yours?’” says Viggiano. “All the way home from that party I thought about why I don’t wear mine, and I realized it’s because it’s inconvenient — nobody wants something attached to them all the time, then you forget, walk away from your helm, and then the boat turns off. So my next thought was, we live in a wireless world, why couldn’t this be wireless?”

Over the next two-and-a-half years, Viggiano and LoSchiavo “drained” their “resources” and created what would soon become a patent and eventually a product.

The kit, priced at $295, comes with a transmitter that is attached to the helm console with “peel and stick” adhesive strips and short coiled wire that clips onto the ignition switch. No tools are required to install the device. Radio waves connect the transmitter to two personal sensors (with an option for two additional sensors), or FOBs, that clip onto a belt or can be placed in a pocket. The yellow (for the operator, white for passengers) FOB will automatically shut off the boat if it’s submerged in water because the signal between the FOB and transmitter is broken.

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If a white FOB is submerged, an audible and flashing alarm is set off. Should the operator not hear or see the alarm, the person in the water needs only to turn the FOB off by pushing and holding the off button for more than two seconds and the boat’s engine will stop.

“The product is totally made in the U.S.,” says Viggiano. “You can’t wear a lanyard that’s any more convenient than what we have.”

In addition to the transmitter and two sensors, the kit comes with belt clips for the sensors, an ignition switch clip, manual, and an extra set of batteries with a mini screwdriver.

“Batteries were the key thing, and it’s something we are continuing to improve upon,” says Viggiano. “We thought about using rechargeable batteries, but then the owner would have to remember to unhook it and take it home with them at the end of the day.”

Another option was lithium ion batteries, but each one is about $40. So they compromised, finding low-drain AAA batteries. The microprocessor in the transmitter constantly checks the battery power levels, and indicates when power is low by changing its normal green light to yellow. When there is only an hour left on the batteries, the light changes to red, and if the batteries do run out, it shuts down the engine automatically.

Viggiano says the system takes 12 heavy-duty batteries that give approximately 150 hours of service and can be found in packs of six, $1.20 for one pack or $2.40 for two.

“The screwdriver is used to take the back off the transmitter and the sensors, and the screws are designed not to fall out once loosened so they are not lost on the boat,” he says.

LoSchiavo says on land, the sensors work from about 50 feet away, and once the signal is lost the transmitter kills the ignition. On the open water it can work between 100 to 150 feet away.

“We are continuing to improve upon the question of batteries, looking into types of chargers and a solar panel application,” says LoSchiavo. “It was a challenge, creating a microprocessor that would conserve power.”

The transmitter can track up to four sensors, and each extra one is $45. The product made its debut at the Newport boat show last fall, and LoSchiavo says they have been getting consistently positive reactions to their product.

“Sure, we’re making a profit, but we also want to make a difference,” says LoSchiavo. “That’s what’s driving us. If someone can come to us someday and say, ‘you guys saved my life,’ then we’ll know we really made a difference.”  www.autotether.com

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.

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