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Navigation: A new world

The high-tech gizmos are more affordable and easy to use, and are giving dealers more to offer buyers


It sounds like covert military intelligence lingo, or perhaps it was part of the dialog in a James Bond film.

But terms like thermal imaging, 3-D images with satellite-photo fusion and touch screens no longer are bantered about only among tekkies, the military or in Hollywood blockbusters.

While these products have long existed in the law enforcement and military realm, they are now more accessible, affordable and reasonable for boaters.

“In the olden days, you drew a line on the chart and looked at the stars at night,” says David Hayden, president of the National Marine Electronics Association. “People five, seven years ago didn’t have products that were very intuitive. You had to be either a mechanical engineer or software engineer to work them, so a lot of people were intimidated.”

Today, a mariner can use a Global Positioning System, or GPS, and watch his own boat move across a screen modified for marine use. He also can have the screen hooked into other pieces of equipment, like radar, that gives the water depth and temperature or the speed of a boat.

“You’ve got a black box feeding the screens,” Hayden says. “It’s pretty incredible, the way we’ve gone away from the individual radar — a sensing unit that rotates and comes down to a distribution point that would go to a radar screen — so that’s all the unit ever did. Now you can feed in all these different pieces of information and have them on one screen.”

Today, the technology is affordable and easy to use, and that continues to change the navigational landscape, Hayden says.

“You can have a 22-inch screen, and be watching a DVD in one quarter of the screen, for example, and in the other quarter, you can be looking at a fish sounder, and on this other little corner of the screen, you can be looking at the chart plotter, and in the other quadrant, you can look at the radar,” Hayden says.

Hayden is enthusiastic as he chatters about what has changed in the technical world of navigation. Much of the technology has been adapted from the military, such as Forward Looking InfraRed, or FLIR. Now the price has dropped, so it’s feasible for commercial maritime use, with the most inexpensive models costing about $5,000.

In the dead of night, the thermal imager will allow the boat operators to see anything on the water’s surface, from a bobbing coconut in the water to a man overboard.

The imaging detects the unique heat given off by a particular object. It’s the same technology that allows Apache helicopters to track targets at night.

“If you’re coming into a harbor at night, all you can see is blackness and lights,” Hayden says. “With a thermal imager, you can see everything — bridges, docks, pylons, other boats in the marina and other boats in the harbor. It is incredible to look at that, and then look at it through your naked eye. It’s just incredible.”

The cameras give mariners an added level of safety and have been long utilized by the military, police, U.S. Coast Guard and firefighters, says Andrew Cox, national sales  representative for FLIR Systems, based in Wilsonville, Ore.

“It’s highly improbable that you’d find a man overboard in the rough seas using spotlights, but with thermal imaging it’s night and day,” Cox says. “You can’t hide heat.”

FLIR offers four different models for recreational boaters: Navigator II, Mariner, SeaFLIR and Voyager.

FLIR’s Navigator II is a thermal imager designed for navigation and safety in collision avoidance. It allows boat operators to see floating debris, channel markers and other boats in total darkness and reduced visibility, according to FLIR’s Web site. It comes in two configurations: the static, fixed-forward configuration, which costs about $5,000, or the full pan/tilt system, which sells for $8,990.

The Mariner, which costs $8,100, is similar, but without all the bells and whistles, Cox says. A few manufacturers, such as Lazzara Yachts, have contracted FLIR to manufacture one for each ship they build.

The Mariner doesn’t typically sell as well as the Navigator II, though, because for the minimal price difference boaters get many more options with the Navigator II, Cox says.

Voyager is typically used on megayachts, Cox says, and retails for about $75,000. It has 10 times the range of the Navigator II, he says.

The stabilized multi-sensor thermal-imaging system is housed in a gyrostabilized shell. Gyrostabilized means no matter how much the boat is pitching at sea, the camera can still zoom on a fixed location and be spot-on, Cox explains.

Voyager couples two thermal imagers: a wide field-of-view imager for situational awareness, obstacle avoidance and navigation, and a narrow field-of-view imager that can detect hazards and other vessels at long ranges. Voyager’s daylight/lowlight camera lets mariners identify approaching vessels and watch for onshore security threats.

“That’s what high-end customers are getting,” Cox says. “You can see five miles away, through pitch-black, smoke and haze.

The SeaFLIR, while typically sold to military vessels, has some commercial applications, Cox says. The small, lightweight, multi-sensor camera inside a gyrostabilized shell retails for about $300,000. The stabilized long-range thermal imager is well-suited to both navigation and security applications, with the imaging power to see targets at the horizon. SeaFLIR’s long-range daylight camera can zoom in on activity and read registration numbers when conditions permit.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years for the military and for the guys who could afford it,” Cox says. “Now, through economy of scale, we’re able to produce these things for $5,000.”

The company began scaling down the core units for the BMW 6 and 7 series, and jumped into the marine market in 2006 with the Mariner. The Navigator II, introduced last October, uses the same BMW core, but has new housing created for the marine environment.

“I would say that thermal imaging for the masses, or the boating public, is one of the biggest innovations,” Hayden said. “It’s not really an innovation, but the price has come down to where it is affordable to the general boating public. To them, it’s brand new.”

Furuno NavNet 3D
This year Furuno unveiled its NavNet 3D, which incorporates a technology called satellite photo fusion. The system shows charts wherever there is water and a 3-D satellite image on land, says Iker Pryszo, one of the programmers.

Land areas (zero depth)  are completely opaque, so these areas are displayed as satellite photos on the chart, says Pryszo.  As the depth increases, the satellite image is merged with the chart data to provide the user with added detail on seabed areas in shallow water without losing vital chart information. In deeper water, where the satellite image has no detail to offer, the chart is displayed without alteration.

This ensures that navigational integrity is not only maintained but also enhanced where it is most needed in areas where grounding might be a risk, he said.

“You can build your routes and waypoints right there on the 3-D chart,” Pryszo said. “With all the competitors, you have to go back to the 2-D view to plot.”

The 3-D benefit is not just looking cool, Pryszo says.

“You look on your chart, and you see a rock, and just look out the window and see where the possible danger is,” Pryszo says. “We can merge all the possible information within the chart in one 3-D view.”

The 3-D view is often likened to Google Earth, and the entire U.S. catalog of raster navigation charts, vector electronic navigation charts and bathymetric charts are all preloaded in the system’s internal memory. Satellite photo files are uploaded to the internal memory as needed. Those photographs are then fused with the chart images, Pryszo says.

“What you see out the boat window is exactly what you see on your screen. You don’t have to guess,” Pryszo says.

Another new feature is TimeZero, which is exactly what it sounds like. When panning across the chart, the processor is so fast there is no pause while the screen redraws. That adds another element of safety.

Traditional chart plotters can handle one frame per second, creating a delay, Pryszo says. NavNet 3D can handle many more frames per second, he says, contributing to an “incredible realism.”

And the system is so easy to use, boaters can simply plug it in and start using it, says spokesman Jeff Kauzlaric.

“Going on sea trials, they are literally just plugging it in and turning it on, and they have been spot-on,” Kauzlaric says. “So the underwater experience has been phenomenal without having to tweak things on it.”

The concept is to do something completely automatic for the user, Pryszo says. The system will remove the satellite image in deep water, anything of more than 20 feet, because the image is useless. On land, satellite images are useful, so the nautical charts are removed.

“In between, we will display chart information and the satellite picture of the land,” Pryszo says.

Garmin GPSMAP 5000
This series of Garmin is its first touch screen series, and again emphasizes an intuitive product.

“A lot of touch screens have been around for years, especially in the automotive market,” says spokesman Ted Gartner. “GPS has taken off in the last few years because of touch screen and ease of use. We took what we knew from the automotive market and applied it to a marine environment.”

The company focused on making the system easy to use while maintaining all the key functions that mariners expect, Gartner says.

“The last thing any skipper wants to do is stuff his face in a manual when he should be out enjoying his time on the water,” Gartner says. “And we think we’ve nailed it.”

The system doesn’t have any hard buttons and can be configured to each navigator’s wishes at that exact moment.

“It’s amazing how much important information that can be presented, yet you can still eliminate all that extraneous information that you don’t want,” Gartner says.

The series isn’t designed to stand alone; it can integrate radar, autopilot, or the NMEA 2000, for example.

“There’s not a lot of set-up involved,” Gartner says, echoing a theme from many companies producing navigational technology. “It’s basically like plugging your computer into the Ethernet. It can be networked.”

So one corner might show sonar, while another corner might have real-time weather overlaid on a multi-function display chart plotter.

“You can see where the land is, where you are, the wave height and where that storm is coming in,” Gartner says.

The technology was originally produced for aviators, Gartner says. Garmin designs for many consumers, from the soccer mom in a minivan to pilots who rely on Garmin while flying.

“This is easy: If you want to view a map, you push a button that says ‘View map,’ if you want to navigate, you push a button that says, ‘Navigate,’” Gartner says.

The 5000 series is new this year, and was put through torture tests, Gartner says.

“We literally dumped fish guts on them, and sprayed them with salt water,” Gartner says. “They still remained touch sensitive, with high-resolution displays.”

If you’re operating in a cold environment, Garmin sells a 4000 series that uses hard buttons since the screens don’t respond to gloved hands. For that reason, there will always be some demand for actual buttons, but Gartner thinks the industry will continue to gravitate to touch screens.

“People want to enjoy their time on the water, they don’t want master electronics,” Gartner says.

Now Garmin is pursuing boat manufacturers to sell the series, since it’s not directly sold to consumers. It can also be ordered through West Marine.

ACR Electronics’ Nauticast
This Class B send-and-receive transponder made by ACR Electronics has been stalled while getting federal government approval for use in the United States, but has quickly been taken to by boaters in other countries, according to Chris Wahler, marketing director for ACR Electronics.

Even the Coast Guard is waiting for approval because it wants to employ Class B in security and maritime awareness, Wahler says.

“The consumer has been hearing about Class B for several years, but in the United States you can’t buy one,” he says.

One of several companies standing in line for approval, ACR Electronics’ Class B transponder allows for sharing of data with other AIS-equipped vessels.

The data is both static and dynamic, Wahler says. Static data would include the vessel’s name, length, beam and draft, for example. Dynamic data would include the vessel’s position, speed and rate of turn.

It has less information than Class A would have, such as rudder angle. Class A is required in most of the world’s regulated marketplaces for commercial vessels, Wahler says. The Class B transponder is generally seen on smaller workboats and leisure craft.

“The early feedback from those sailing internationally (using Class B) is, for the first time, they’re getting responses from these huge container ships, because they are hailing them by name,” Wahler says.

“If you have a blip on the horizon and you’re equipped and he is, you can see who it is,” Wahler says. “It’s just one more layer of information for the mariner to help them make navigational decisions.”

Class A also has a faster update rate, but is compatible with Class B. The update rates of both vary based on vessel speed.

For example, if a Class A vessel is at anchor, the information may update every 20 minutes. As other vessels approach and leave the scene, they get updates about where the vessel is, which should stay the same. If the vessel was moving, that interval would go down to 10 minutes and can update as frequently as every three seconds if a boat is moving quickly.

For Class B, the fastest information can be updated is every 30 seconds, Wahler explains.

Nauticast can be interfaced with AIS-compatible chart plotters and PC-based navigation systems. The boater could overlay AIS data on their chart plotter, Wahler says.

“The PC Nav software allows you to be creative with the display of information, like changing all the tugboats to red and container ships to blue,” he says. “The serious stuff is, you can see the closest point of approach of another vessel and determine if safe passage is possible without changing course. So it allows you to do some creative things with the data, but it really boils it down to more information to make better navigation decisions.”

As with any other navigational aids, it won’t substitute for traditional navigation, Wahler says. Because not all boats are equipped with AIS, there still will be large unnamed targets on the water.

As soon as Nauticast gets FCC approval, it will be available at the retail level, Wahler said. It should cost about $1,180.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue.



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