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Chuck Husick: Techno-Talk, July 2001 BoatUS Magazine - Updated January 2009

Digital Instrumentation

The instrument panel on the next boat you buy may look very different from what you are used to: a blank display screen where you normally see the familiar engine gauges. The new display is the visible result of the introduction to boating of a new data system similar to one already used in late model cars. In addition to providing a better looking and more useful information display, the new system will improve reliability and reduce the cost of finding the cause of problems in boat engines and other systems.

Using digital technology similar to the local area network that connects the computers and printers in your office or home, virtually everything on the boat will connect to a single pair of wires over which all on-board information will flow. What you see on the screen is the result of software programming, allowing designers almost unlimited freedom to create innovative graphics. You might see a conventional looking round gage, with its needle and scale markings. However, while the gage, markings and its needle are green when everything is normal, they may change to yellow if the readings are somewhat abnormal or blink on and off in bright red to warn of an unacceptable condition.

You can see this type of display on your next airline flight. Turn to the left when you enter the cabin and ask the pilot to show you the Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS, pronounced "eecas") on his instrument panel. He will be flattered that you are interested and will recognize you as a very well informed passenger.

Using computer technology to replace conventional gauges will also allow more room for the navigation displays, radar, chart plotter and sonar. When things are going right, you only need to see the gauges you use to set power, the tachometers. If something goes out of normal limits, a caution or warning alarm will sound and the appropriate displays will automatically appear. With virtually all of the boat's system information available on the data bus, the monitoring of generator sets, water makers, water tank and holding tank fluid levels, bilge water levels and pump status becomes practical. You will also be able to make everything visible with the press of a button. The overall usefulness of the instrument panel will be greatly enhanced, especially in its ability to alert you to a possible problem in a monitored system and to direct your attention to the specific out of tollerance condition that created the alarm.

The advantages of the new digital data systems extend beyond the engine room. Control of the remote-mounted searchlight on the bow rail can be handled via the boat's digital communication network. The same network will connect to and command the anchor windlass and countless other remotely controlled devices.

In addition to being useful, the new system will save money when something breaks. As with autos, a technician will diagnose problems by plugging in a hand-held computer that interrogates the engine and all other boat systems, revealing the cause of the problem and in many cases recommending the fix. Many engine systems will retain an operating history, alerting you of needed routine service and providing a useful long-term performance analysis tool.

A number of manufacturers are already using digital communication systems to control and report on their engines. The new Mercruiser and Teleflex systems are two examples. Virtually all medium and large diesel engines use electronic controls to optimize economy, maximize reliability and meet ever more stringent emission limitations. An industry standard digital bus system, NMEA 2000, is already in widespread use for monitoring and control of equipment where its modest data rate is sufficient for the task. Interconnecting NMEA 2000 equipped devices is largely a plug-and-play exercise as each device recognizes the other on-line participants. High-speed digital communication between radar sets, plotters, fish finders is increasingly being accomplished using the familiar 10/100 Base T Ethernet protocol (as in the new Furuno NavNet 3D and other similar systems) used in millions of computer systems worldwide.

The electronic flow of bits and bytes will make our boats easier to use, more reliable and less costly to repair when something breaks. Welcome to the 21st century!

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