Gonna Get Myself Connected!

By Lenny Rudow

Is your boat about to become an information hub?

Even if you have an unusual gift for gab, your smartphone probably exchanges information with more different players in 60 seconds than the number of people you talk with during an entire day. Bluetooth, apps, Wi-Fi, and satellites conspire to connect anywhere, anytime in countless devices we use these days — and soon, they'll be slinging information around your boat, too.

A new wave of modern multifunction displays (MFDs) has shattered what we've come to expect from our marine electronics, and is likely to make nearly every unit made prior to 2012 seem obsolete in short order.

Photo of FUSION-Link mobile app and Fusion stereo1. The FUSION-Link mobile app lets you converse with your boat's Fusion stereo (2), giving you full control of the system from your phone or tablet.

Only a decade ago, our helm stations were elevated from stand-alone units to networked systems, but in the past few months, we've seen advances that make networked nav systems seem passé.

The latest trend in modern electronics? Interconnectivity. If you think your smartphone causes a lot of chatter, wait till you discover how talkative your boat is about to become.

Wi Not?

One of the latest developments in marine interconnectivity at the helm first came from an unlikely candidate: Standard- Horizon. Their new CPN1010i and CPN700i, a pair of MFDs that can be had for under $2,000 and under $1,500, respectively, have built-in Wi-Fi. When these units hit the market, it suddenly became possible to bring up Internet Explorer 6.0 right at the helm, without requiring a separate full-blown onboard computer. In the blink of an eye, a manufacturer whose nav products are commonly thought of as mid-range and relatively inexpensive made connectivity a reality, even on small boats.

Less than one year later, Raymarine's introduction of the e7 now takes inter-unit connectivity a step farther, by adding apps and Bluetooth capability to the Wi-Fi mix. Get the Raymarine Viewer app, and you can use your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch as a screen for your very own portable MFD viewer. Chartography, the sonar screen, radar, thermal night vision — anything that can be seen at the helm — can now be viewed from the palm of your hand, anywhere onboard. But this conversation is not all one-way. By putting Bluetooth to work, you can also use your i-device to play music on the boat's stereo system. Controls similar to those on the i-screen can be accessed via the e7's touch-screen, allowing you to play and pause tracks, skip forward, or go backwards into your playlist.

Having Wi-Fi inside your little box o' navigation also allows for some other interesting possibilities, which would've seemed impossible just a few years ago. You can pre-plan trips and routes, for example, without the need for a data card or computer program. Navionics Mobile can discuss matters directly with the e7, thanks to its Plotter Synch ability. Just do your planning at home on your iPad or iPhone, bring it with you to the boat, and your chartplotter will converse with your chartography app to wirelessly download the data.

Photo of Standard-Horizon CPN1010i

Photo of Raymarine's e7 and Apple's iPad3. With built-in Wi-Fi, the Standard-Horizon CPN1010i can run Internet Explorer 6.0 right at the helm, while (5) Raymarine's e7 features Bluetooth connectivity as well. The e7 can share what's on the MFD screen with an iPad (4), iPhone, or iPod Touch. You can also beam music up to the e7 from your Apple device.

Sounds Groovy

The latest newly connected players in the market are the FUSION stereos with their FUSION-Link, new this fall. Here, a combination of connective technologies is at work, but it's a different combination: The stereo interfaces with a wireless DHCP Ethernet router, auto-configures to the network, and speaks with your smartphone (Apple or Android) via a FUSION-Link mobile app, allowing full control of your boat's multi-zoned audio system from your phone.

Although the stereo may not be the most important electronic item on your boat, this use of app-applied technology is growing in other ways, too. Would you like to have some measure of control even when you're miles away from the boat? Check out systems like Siren Marine, which provides a monitoring and control interface with your boat via an app (iPhone or Android) along with the use of onboard sensors. You can preset the app to send text messages to your phone if problems like a low battery, high bilge water, or a shore power failure occur. You can even set it up so that your own boat can "call" you if someone steals it — and its GPS coordinates will pop up with a link to Google Maps. And before calling the watercops, you can talk right back to your boat via the same app, and tell it to shut down the engines.

You'll soon also be able to give your boat remote marching orders from anywhere you have cell service, with a system called EmpirBus NXT, an onboard digital switching system that offers control via an app on your phone — stay tuned.

Just a few decades ago, we had standalone units. There would be a chartplotter, fishfinder, and radar all taking up space at the helm. We'd have to operate each separately.

Though it was a far cry from the days of navigating with a compass and a stopwatch, our boats were anything but interconnected. Then as computer networks advanced by light-years on dry land, technology trickledown soon brought us into the world of networked marine electronics. Our units could at least talk to each other, even though the outside world was muted.

All the electronics mentioned here have ways of communicating beyond of our self-contained craft. Yet when one considers the strangely divergent purposes of each — from Internet access to stereo control to security — it's obvious that we'll also need a consolidation of these technologies before our boats can truly be considered 100-percent interconnected.

The MFD unit is the natural choice for a connectivity hub, and we're already seeing multidimensional connections at the helm station. Considering how quickly electronics evolve and advance, it seems like a safe bet that during the next decade, our helms will do more yakking than we do — no matter how good we are at flapping our gums. 

Lenny Rudow is the electronics editor of BoatUS Magazine.

— Published: February/March 2012

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