A New Way to Network

The Internet of Things, which connects devices at home, is coming to boats
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The term Internet of Things (IoT) describes the proliferation of connectivity among previously unconnected, everyday household devices. Though IoT is rooted on land, it’s also showing up on boats, with the marine industry in a phase of rapid adoption that includes both opportunities and challenges. The proliferation of connected devices and data streams can provide incredibly detailed information about boats and how they’re used, but too much information can quickly overwhelm our existing data-collection and management tools.

Marine companies trying to find a happy medium include Blue Guard Innovations, which launched a line of smart bilge pump switches. These switches monitor the number and duration of activations, voltage, current consumption, temperature and sensor status. This information is made available via Bluetooth and a mobile phone app, so boaters can know whether a pump is activating too often or drawing too much power, or if it has failed.

Victron Energy also has been a pioneer in connecting its line of electrical equipment. Inverters, battery chargers, battery monitors, solar controllers and other products have all gained the ability to communicate with one another. This connectivity allows an integrated power system to make intelligent decisions, with the whole system being monitored and analyzed to understand exactly what’s happening.

“Creating highly integrated and thus complex systems brings lots of new features and capabilities,” says Victron CEO Matthijs Vader, “but it can also be challenging to support.”

Using the data

Various forms of connectivity are coming to nearly every major component of boats. Engines, generators, air conditioners, power-system components, stereos, televisions and other components are all now connected or connectable.

But questions remain: What’s the value of the data, and what can be done with it?

Victron created a VRM (Victron Remote Management) portal that lets customers view the operations of a boat’s electrical system. VRM receives data from Victron controllers on the boat that are connected to the internet.

Vader says VRM proves invaluable during troubleshooting. With our complex systems, a local electrician with a multimeter may not be able to figure out what’s happening.

“With VRM, one has the ability to see how products are configured, exactly what is happening now, as well as what has happened,” Vader says.

Siren Marine, which makes boat-monitoring equipment, offers a suite of sensors to provide status on existing devices. The company is expanding its boat-monitoring system to participate on the NMEA 2000 network. The resulting, additional data will let Siren monitor and control more aspects of a boat, including engines — a capability that boatbuilders want, because it lets them better understand how customers use boats.

“The epiphany for the builders is that the same system and app the consumers want provides the builder with a wealth of data,” says Daniel Harper, Siren’s CEO and founder.

Blueguard lets boaters monitor bilge-pump switch activity from mobile phones.

Blueguard lets boaters monitor bilge-pump switch activity from mobile phones.

The future standard

The previous examples are companies well along in connecting components and in collecting and displaying the data that those components provide. But they’re doing it primarily in single-vendor solutions.

Devices aboard boats today are connecting via NMEA 2000, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and likely some proprietary networks. What’s needed is a standard solution for all of this data.

NMEA 2000 can connect many onboard devices and add them to a single data stream. The data can then be displayed on any NMEA 2000 gauge or compatible display.

But, NMEA 2000 isn’t designed for the size, complexity and quantity of data now available. NMEA 2000 supports a maximum of 50 devices, has relatively low bandwidth and has a finite list of standard PGNs, which identify a message’s function and associated data.

Steve Spitzer, technical director of the National Marine Electronics Association, says the new NMEA OneNet is designed to fulfill a modern boat’s networking needs. Nearly every facet of OneNet is a response to the challenges described above.

OneNet can support nearly unlimited numbers of devices on board. It has bandwidth from 100 megabits per second to 10 gigabits per second and it has built-in security measures.

Spitzer says he hopes to see the OneNet 1.0 standard ratified by the end of this year.

Future uses of data

Armed with current and historical information about a component’s operation, manufacturers can do predictive failure analysis.

As an example of what that means, think about a refrigerator. Assume the fridge usually runs for six hours a day, consumes 5 amps while running, and maintains a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. If the data shows run time ticking up to 12 hours a day, power consumption down to 4 amps and the temperature moving toward 40 degrees, then there is likely a problem. Armed with this information, the fridge owner can schedule a repair long before he discovers spoiled food inside.

On boats, Dometic is working on connecting and monitoring its refrigerators (as well as air conditioners, icemakers and blinds) through a digital control module that converts an analog boat into a digital vessel. The system works with more than appliances, connecting to the boat’s electrical system as well as to engine controls. Dometic plans to launch the system at IBEX in October.

VRM’s system lets electricians see what is happening with electrical components remotely. 

VRM’s system lets electricians see what is happening with electrical components remotely. 

For Dometic and other companies, once appliances and systems are connected on board, automation will come into play to solve problems. Assume a boat’s house batteries are being monitored, and the data shows they need to be recharged. An automated program can start the generator while the boat’s control system performs a series of checks. A controller could access the boat’s data stream and determine fuel level and the starting battery’s condition. The control system also could check the generator’s control unit for any errors, verify that the generator’s through-hull is open, and monitor other factors so the generator is safe to start.

Final thought

In a few years, with OneNet out and adopted, I expect to see real momentum around interoperability. Maybe even something along the lines of what Amazon has created with the Alexa ecosystem, which can control lights, door locks and other smart home devices with voice commands.

The same could plausibly happen on our boats, if we can come together as an industry and approve a standard scheme to connect, collect and display our data. 

Ben Stein is the editor and publisher of the marine electronics blog Panbo.com, as well as electronics editor for Trade Only’s sister magazines Soundings and Power & Motoryacht.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.

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