By Ben Ellison
Operationally, multiple black box systems can give the skipper tremendous flexibility. Steaming along a busy channel in fog, you might put your radar image front and center flanked by electronic chart and sounder screens. Later that day, you might have radar standing anchor watch to one side, a camera minding your guests using the watertoys to the other, and CNBC playing on the central display. "Total Control" is the motto of one company specializing in these high-tech bridges, and they look downright addictive.
Then there’s the aesthetic angle. Once electronic displays and even controls are freed from their source boxes, engineers can create clean, straightforward, even beautiful helm stations. On big yachts, this idea has gone way beyond radar and chart imagery. Consider the vessel monitoring systems developed by DMP and nView. Both companies build boxes that accept a seemingly infinite variety of inputs–digital or analog engine gauges, bilge alarms, tank-level sensors, door and hatch sensors, etc. The signals are then sent via Ethernet, the predominant office networking protocol, to a PC where NMEA 0183-compatible data from instruments like GPSes and sounders is mixed in and dedicated software can display any or all information on a bridge monitor controlled by a touchscreen or mouse. That same monitor, or monitors, can display other PC software output, like electronic charting, or can switch inputs to a camera, entertainment system, or black box radar. It all adds up to user-friendly bridges with science-fiction looks.
DMP also manufactures custom control panels using black box architecture. Integrated backlit panels with soft-touch switches send low-voltage signals to remote boxes where the actual work of controlling thrusters, deck lights, and the like takes place. This technique not only complements the aesthetics of the "all glass" bridge, but also lends itself to the vessel-wide networks that black boxing can easily support. Once you have data and controls running through central boxes, it’s fairly easy to extend them to anywhere onboard. Nils Nelson, president of DMP America, describes a heavy-displacement 60-footer which is sometimes cruised solely by the couple who owns her with the aid of multiple black boxes and remote workstations.
While there is an obvious installation and maintenance benefit to modular electronics, I’d be remiss not to mention the drawbacks. The National Marine Electronics Association journal recently published an article about black box technology in which several field technicians talked about how difficult it can be to integrate parts and software from different sources. They also complained that they had to become expert in PC support as well as the operation and installation requirements of individual components. Little wonder then that specialists are developing the really complex systems on large vessels. Nelson says that DMP’s average project boat is 100 feet LOA. Mike Blake, vice president of nView, talks of a recent trip to Cuba on a 150-foot motoryacht to test a company project that involves 193 data sources feeding eight bridge screens. But both men report that their companies have also designed systems for high-end production yachts, and both predict that their technologies will soon migrate to smaller vessels.
It’s safe to predict that more and more vessels will contain black boxes (even if they are actually gray or beige) and that they will perform functions we haven’t dreamed up yet. Blake reports that one builder of very large custom yachts has inquired about a "black box Black Box"–that is, a secure recording unit like those hidden away in aircraft. With all the ship’s performance data routed through a PC, it would be relatively easy to store it out of sight; in fact, both nView and DMP already have data-recording software modules. The idea is to resolve maintenance issues. Say a customer comes in with a burnt-out generator still under warranty. The company could hook into the Black Box and see if the skipper had maybe ignored a low oil pressure alarm for half an hour… perhaps while ensconced on his glass bridge watching The Matrix with the surround sound turned up. n
A former director of the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine, Ben Ellison has more than 30 years’ diverse maritime experience.
DMP America Phone: (954) 491-4423. Fax: (954) 491-0289. www.dmpamerica.com.
Furuno USA Phone: (360) 834-9300. Fax: (360) 834-9400. www.furuno.com.
nView Phone: (757) 873-1354. Fax: (757) 873-2153. www.nview.com.
Simrad Phone: (425) 778-8821. Fax: (425) 771-7211. www.simradusa.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.