Chicken and Eggs

Electronics — August 2003
By Ben Ellison

Chicken and Eggs
NMEA 2000 didn’t go away, it’s just taking a while to hatch.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: NMEA 2000
• Part 2: NMEA 2000
• Electronics Q&A
• Red LED Lightwedge
• JRC JMA-5100
• Suunto M9
• Pocket Stars

 Related Resources
• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

Contemplate the cable and connectors pictured; they are specific and essential elements of the poorly understood but grand dream of NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association) 2000. Running through boats of the future, those four well-shielded wires will constitute an electronic backbone, with everything from engine ECMs (electronic control modules) to plotters to searchlight controls teed in and talking intelligently to each other. Any manufacturer’s certified product should literally plug and play—“plug” because the industrial-strength cabling comes made up to length to accommodate each item, and “play” because each attached unit has its own CAN (control area network) chip and the software needed to make friends with all the other CAN chips on the network.

It’s that “network” word that causes understandable confusion, what with all the major electronics firms offering their own high-speed links and smaller companies extolling the virtues of wireless connections. But NMEA 2000 is meant to coexist, not compete, with NavNet, WiFi, etc. That cable will not pump a whole plotter screen from one display to another and certainly not through the air. What a CAN bus can do—and has been doing for years in vehicles and industrial machinery—is facilitate lots of fast small talk among a wide variety of electronics, even when the sentences are as critical as “stop engine” or “GPS signal lost,” or even as trivial as “it’s 20 degrees in the bait freezer” or “turn off the head fan.” The CAN system is prioritized and fail-safe in unique ways, and NMEA 2000 is simply CAN for boats (well, not that simple for those who wrote all the added marine-specific data descriptions).

Not surprisingly, I was one of the pundits who rhapsodized about this promise of vastly simplified boat wiring and improved electronics compatibility back when the standard was introduced in 2001. So where did it go? Well, there’s definitely a chicken and egg phenomenon at play. Why should you, the consumer, get excited until 2000 backbones and products are commonplace? And why should manufacturers expend resources until there are other products to work with, not to mention a demand? I regularly ask product managers about NMEA 2000, and I usually get the “wait and see” answer.

However, it also turns out that there’s been a quiet but energetic rooster in the NMEA 2000 barn. I’m talking about Teleflex, a firm better known for steering systems than electronics, but also a publicly traded company with considerable engineering and financial clout. Teleflex was an important part of NMEA 2000 development and early on introduced a whole series of compliant gear—engine controls and monitoring, autopilot, plotter, etc.—under the Magic Bus brand. The stuff didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, and even today the product line outnumbers all the other 2000 certified gear combined. But Teleflex is persistent, and eggs are hatching.

One is the i6000TEC control that has become an important option on high-end, triple-outboard fishing machines built in Florida by companies like Intrepid, SeaVee, and Yellowfin. I spoke with managers from each builder, and they were all bullish on the Teleflex gear, despite certain drawbacks. That’s because the i6000TEC looks and acts like a sophisticated dual-engine control while electronically managing three shifters and throttles. You can run offshore with all three engines synched to one stick, but when you’re jockeying around the marina, the center engine will automatically go to neutral whenever the two shifters are opposed (or can even be set up to assist whichever engine is in reverse). It’s so much easier than handling six mechanical controls that many owners are happy to pay the extra $7,000 or so required. And if there’s a tuna tower involved, with the prospect of running six more stiff control cables, “The i6000’s a no-brainer,” says Yellowfin’s Wylie Nagler.

Next page > NMEA 2000, Part 2 > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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