Gold Rush!

Electronics — January 2005
By Ben Ellison

Gold Rush!
The state of electronics networking—so promising, yet so confusing.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Gold Rush!
• Part 2: Gold Rush!
• Electronics Q&A

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My October four-boat show/conference tour is a blur now, and so is my overstimulated brain. Networking in particular is getting painfully complicated. New schemes—LowranceNet, Xanbus, Command Link, BlueNet, LINbus, and more—are popping up like fruit flies on a balmy banana boat. And the goal is moving beyond the integrated helm to “convergence,” the notion that eventually every moving part, picture, and electron on a boat will work with each other. For instance, that is a fishfinder showing detailed electronic engine faults in the screen shots above! Thus I found myself jabbering not just with electronics folks but also with engine, entertainment, lighting, monitoring, and power system guys.

In just 20 years we’ve come from clunky boxes that performed a single navigation function—often not well and not reliably—to the wonders of super-accurate chartplotting that can be integrated with radar, fishfinder, and instruments to one screen or flexibly to multiple screens, or even to multiple nav stations. Now we might use the same displays to check out live weather, window in some satellite TV, fire off an e-mail, query our engine’s deepest secrets, create some mood lighting, or just watch our systems work together—like the inverter starting the genset because the air conditioning feels the outside temperature climbing. Oh, I have many dazzling new products to write about this year, but behind most of them is a mind-melting mess of nattering networking issues. Bear with me, friends, because this is the right, if daunting, topic to kick off 2005.

Early on in my investigations, an executive at a major electronics company exclaimed, “Hell, these days electronics networking is like the Gold Rush!” I’ve come to appreciate that remark in ways he probably didn’t intend. What was San Francisco like in 1849? Picture not just extraordinary excitement, rapid change, and fortunes made, but also confusion, hype, and energy wasted. Another electronics executive frankly told me that while some of his fellow managers believe that “open” networking—open meaning that their data could easily be shared with other manufacturers’ gear—would ultimately be good for the company, others think the opposite. I suspect that a lot of companies are suffering from this sort of strategic schizophrenia, which explains why I often get different answers from different representatives of the same outfit.

Rapid change and general confusion also explain why I’ve seen so much misinformation in the press. “SimNet is like NavNet.” “Ethernet is used to move data between display/control units and the boat’s computers.” Dead wrong and mostly wrong! And don’t look for perfection here. I’m trying hard to figure out what’s going on, but understanding marine networking today is a little like stepping into a saloon back in 1849 and asking where the gold is.

It helps to categorize the growing clutter of “nets” and “buses” into three families, based roughly on their information-toting abilities. “Small data” networking has been around as long as this magazine and commonly involves the open, though somewhat flawed, NMEA 0183 protocol. Technocrats will tell you that 0183 is really just an interface that lets one device talk slowly to a couple of others—say, a GPS sending go-to bearings to an autopilot and/or position to a DSC radio—but it’s being pushed, sometimes screaming, to do much more on many boats. Hence there’s a subculture of NMEA multiplexers, and some companies have developed improved but proprietary 0183-flavor networks like SeaTalk and Navbus. And there are totally new small-data networks appearing, like Ascend Marine’s BlueNet, which can collect all sorts of simple sensor data like depth and anchor position and send it wirelessly to the bridge and portable displays.

Next page > Part 2: The big rush, though, is in the “medium data and control” family. > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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