Looking Ahead to Now
Taking the first step towards a new application of technology is alwaysa leap into the unknown—But the result can be a category killer.
Fishing pro Sam Heaton says the concept of a dredge is simple: It consists of six wires towing fresh or thawed mullet or ballyhoo baits behind the boat but without hooks. To sailfish and other pelagics this looks and smells like a free lunch.
The question then is timing: When should an angler drop back a bait with a hook into the mix? Maybe a spotter in the tower can help by seeing the game fish from on high or the helmsman looks at a screen on the dash, where he watches a sailfish swim into the aft-facing “cone” of his Humminbird 360 Imaging sonar, looking like a gourmand stepping up to a buffet.
“When the fish comes in behind the dredge, you can actually see it on screen and use the preset tackle that you want,” says Heaton, Humminbird’s field promotions manager.
If you fish fresh water, you likely know that brand, but saltwater anglers are probably only slightly familiar with Humminbird. (That’s right, without the “g,” the way they say it in the South.) The company, with roots in Eufaula, Alabama, is about to spread its wings this fall as it relaunches itself as a global brand with a unique 360 Imaging echosounder technology.
Humminbird’s corporate name is Techsonic Industries, and it was founded in 1971. Techsonic has changed hands twice, finally becoming a division of Johnson Outdoors in 2004. In 2009, Johnson Outdoors purchased the European electronics manufacturer Geonav, and then unveiled a full suite of marine electronics for the deepwater market. The timing was terrible, and Geonav’s rollout was discontinued amidst the worldwide economic downturn.
With Geonav sidelined, Johnson Outdoors made a simultaneous decision about the Humminbird brand. Humminbird would incorporate the fruits of Geonav’s R&D—about $4 million worth—into its own product line. Humminbird’s intent at this writing is to relaunch at the 2013 Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show with a full suite of products suitable for deepwater boaters, including chartplotters, VHF radios, groundbreaking sonars, and radar (rebranded from Koden).
The company’s cute hummingbird logo has also been redesigned to be more stylized and aggressive looking—an “angry bird,” according to a joke from company insiders. Humminbird is going to war.
Lowrance has long competed in the freshwater fishfinder segment against Humminbird, but in recent years that brand succeeded at expanding its market to include boaters on both coasts as well. Lowrance and Simrad are both divisions of Navico, offering full suites of marine electronics while targeting slightly different market segments. Both offer Navico’s unique Broadband Radar, which has proved very popular and surely helped Lowrance to become a deepwater player. Targeting the saltwater fishing crowd, Humminbird may well see 360 Imaging as its category killer.
In 2004, Humminbird introduced its Side Imaging system, which gave recreational boaters an inexpensive, compact version of the sidescan sonar long used by scientists and treasure hunters. In fact, a treasure-hunting company called Global Marine Exploration uses Side Imaging to hunt for shipwrecks in the Dominican Republic. (Simrad and Lowrance each introduced its own version of this technology, called StructureScan, in 2009.)
It may be an oversimplification to say so—a slight to the challenges that Humminbird’s engineers had to overcome—but 360 Imaging essentially takes Side Imaging technology and spins it around inside a transducer housing. The transducer fits in the palm of your hand, and is lowered below the water using a transom-mounted assembly. I’ve watched a demonstration at a Florida lake and, as you can see from the screen shot opposite, the detail can be near-photographic in quality. And 360 Imaging sells for less than $2,000.
This concept is not new, however. Furuno sold an early version of rotating echosounder technology beginning in 1967 and its current Searchlight Sonar line began in 2000 with the release of the CH250. The Furuno sonars deploy from a housing inside the vessel, have vast range and, depending on model, cost from $12,000 to more than $20,000. Interphase Technologies, now a subsidiary of Garmin, uses entirely different transducer technology to look ahead or to the sides of the vessel—a device without moving parts.
Humminbird knows that the transom-mount system, while suitable for smaller center consoles, is not really practical for sportfishing battlewagons. One of the alternatives being considered is a scissor-jack-type mechanism that would retract into a fairing block on the hull. Either way boat speed will need to be kept to 10 knots or less.
Sam Heaton, who has been fishing for 58 years, says 360 Imaging is a terrific tool for finding fish and the underwater “structure” that attracts them. Unlike conventional fishfinders, with signal cones that point downward, 360 imaging can be set to look out 150 feet from the boat on all sides. “You are able to see the structure before you get to it,” Heaton says. “If you’re talking saltwater, you don’t have to go over a wreck to see the fish suspended around it.” You can scan a 300-foot-diameter circle around the boat or designate a sector—say, one that encompasses your dredge—and focus the signal energy entirely in that direction.
Heaton says it has another advantage over both conventional fishfinders and Humminbird’s own Side Imaging; 360 Imaging works better at anchor, tracking fish as they swim through the coverage circle from one side to the other.
The technology has potential as a cruising aid as well, especially if Humminbird engineers are someday able to extend the range farther than 150 feet. Like other forward-looking sonar units, it could become a tool to detect obstacles ahead or to find paths through reefs or shallows.
As it now stands, the 150-foot range limits the system’s navigational usefulness. At 6 knots, a boat travels 10 feet per second, transiting 150 feet in 15 seconds. At 10 knots, the boat covers that distance in just nine seconds. That’s not a lot of time for obstacle avoidance. For that matter, 150 feet is pretty close when you are piloting parallel to a potentially hazardous reef.
You can bet that Humminbird is working on that range issue as you read this. Again, the analogy to Navico’s Broadband Radar holds true; by the time the third-generation Broadband Radar was released for sale, engineers for Simrad and Lowrance had made significant improvements to its range and performance.
In any event, welcome back to the briny deep, Humminbird. Feel free to slap that “Salt Life” sticker on the rear window of your pickup truck.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.