Electronics: Get The Most From Your Gear


Marine Electronics - Are You Smarter Than Them?

By Lenny Rudow
Published: June/July 2012

It's not HAL 9000 against David Bowman, but the results are just as epic.

"Excuse me," said a bossy and annoying cyber-voice, dripping with the innate overconfidence of a TomTom. "This is your electronics talking. Did you know I can do that now? And talking isn't all. I can navigate your boat all by myself. I can choose my own settings and sensitivities, see miles farther into the distance than you can. I even find fish faster than you. Sorry meat-bag, your days as captain are numbered. I'm now smarter than you, and don't need you anymore."

Photo of modern fishfinders and radar unit
The "brains" behind modern fishfinders and radar units have gotten exponentially better in the past few years. Can a human mind compete?

I sit bolt upright in my berth, heart pounding. Wow, what a crazy dream — my own marine electronics were trying to pull a "Terminator" on me. On the other hand, maybe the idea of a seagoing Singularity isn't so crazy after all. From some of the conversations I've had with industry insiders, you'd think that we humans are no longer the most intelligent entities on a boat. Take the words of Greg Konig, a vice president and product manager for Navico, for example: "The hardware and software we designed for the Broadband radar is so good, so advanced, that it can out-think even experienced boaters. Take the unit off the automatic settings, and see for yourself. I’ll bet you can't tune it better than it can tune itself, in most normal situations."

How dare he insinuate that some dumb dome was smarter than I am! On my boat I'm still the captain, the master, the decider-in-chief, and most certainly the smartest entity (unless my wife is aboard). The gauntlet had been thrown down. I decided right then and there to take a Broadband 3G unit out on the water, and prove in several different situations that human nautical know-how could outperform the latest algorithms and programming. And when Konig threw in a snide remark about a modern fishfinder's digital-processing capacity, I knew I’d have to test animated abilities against these as well. I'd prove who’s better, the man or the machine. And in doing so, discover a thing or two about what this kind of modern technology means to us, as boaters.

Photo of radar screen
In short range, the machine wins; note the target separation between the two crab pot floats (blue arrow) and the visible feeder creek (yellow arrow).

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Lessons Learned

So, what does pitting man versus the machine tell us? First off, it's pretty clear that Broadband radar does, in fact, have a pretty darn impressive brain. If you have one on your boat, chances are you'll be best served by leaving it on auto mode. What about other brands? I haven't personally experienced any other unit that can self-adjust this well, but it's easy enough for you to test your own radar for yourself. All you need is a clear day, a strong pair of binoculars, and a range of strong and weak targets to choose from. You might be surprised at the results — and even if you're not, chances are good you'll learn a thing or two about how to best adjust your own unit.

When it comes to fishfinders, in average conditions on average days, you're likely to see beneath the surface best in auto mode. But the moment you aren't satisfied with the view, start pressing buttons. Many different anomalies in weather and water composition can deceive these devices, as we saw with the hurricane-riled waters of the Chesapeake. I've also observed modern units being fooled by algae blooms, heavy jellyfish populations, dense schools of fish, and aerated surface waters.

To effectively manually adjust your fishfinder's sensitivity, start by increasing range to double the water's depth. Then increase gain until a second bottom echo appears on-screen. Shift back to the proper range setting, and you have a good starting point. If most of the clutter you see is at the top of your screen, increase the STC setting next. If not (or after boosting STC), reduce gain until mid- and deep-water clutter is reduced. As long as you continue seeing fish and receiving a solid bottom reading, slowly bump the gain down a notch at a time until fish are still present and clutter is not. If you're in deep ocean waters, you lose bottom and/or fish readings as you make these adjustments, and you have a multi-frequency unit, try shifting to a lower frequency and repeating the above process. And remember, if some arrogant, overbearing automated voice tells you that the human brain is outdated, don't believe it. Yet.

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