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Marine Tech Tablets

Cutting Out the Middle Machine

Where is the iPad revolution taking marine electronics?

Owner and guest are relaxing in the saloon of a sportfishing boat. So maybe the conversation goes like this:
Guest (himself a boater): “Do you think we’ll ever be able to run a radar from our iPads?”
Owner: “We can. I use my iPad all the time to do that. There’s an app that lets me control my Furuno TZtouch from my iPad. The other brands can do the same, I think.”
Guest: “Yeah, but you had to have the TZtouch to do it. I’m asking, will we ever be able to use the iPad all by itself without an expensive helm unit in the mix?”
Owner: “Dunno. Fishing, I like my Furuno a lot for finding birds, but I’d like to get one of those Simrad Broadband radars to avoid the crab traps when we get back to the harbor after dark. Simrads are really good for seeing things close up. I wish I could mount a Simrad as a second radar but be able to read it on the Furuno display. Can’t do that now either.”

A clever app lets an iPad direct the data from the Furuno TZtouch (right) but the author wonders when the tablet (left) will talk to the radar directly.Disruptive

Since April 2010, Apple has sold an astonishing 100 million iPads, enabled by more than 700,000 apps, many of which incorporate GPS location features. Apple’s new machine created an entirely new market, and many have labeled the iPad a “disruptive innovation.” That phrase from business and technology literature describes an invention that disrupts an existing market and displaces existing technology.

There can be no doubt iOS as well as Android mobile devices are disrupting markets, including that of Garmin, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of GPS technology. In 2011, Garmin warned stockholders that its GPS navigator business for automobiles and handheld units was being hurt by smartphones and the iPad. “The acceptance of this technology by consumers has halted our growth and could further reduce margins,” the company said. For that matter, the proliferation of smartphones of all types has been blamed for cutting into VHF radio sales.

Pushed by the marketplace, some of the major manufacturers are noodling in the iPad-only direction ever so hesitantly. Some are being taken in that direction against their will. For example, Navico (which includes the Simrad and Lowrance brands) has reached an agreement with the Rose Point PC navigation software company to incorporate its Broadband Radar controls into the company’s Coastal Explorer program. In other words, a Simrad radar could be controlled from a PC (or, say, a new Coastal Explorer iPad app) without putting a Simrad MFD in the mix. The downside for the consumer: Rose Point would collect an additional $1,700 “licensing fee” from the customer in addition to the cost of the hardware itself—$1,300 for Navico’s development expenses and $400 for Rose Point’s development of the software user-interface.

The upcharge may be understandable given that Navico spent $10 million developing its “frequency modulated continuous wave”
radar (Broadband Radar) for the recreational market. Rose Point has done the software engineering, but has thus far refrained from bringing its Broadband Radar product to market.

Enter the Hackers

Meanwhile, the marine electronics blog Panbo (www.panbo.com) reports that a group of Austrian university students, working on a robotic boat project, have developed a program to allow Navico (Lowrance and Simrad) Broadband Radar to work with a Windows computer. Panbo, which is sponsored by Power & Motoryacht, also reports that a technologically gifted cruiser has done the same with Garmin radar. 

“While on my annual Bahamas cruise, I had access to a Garmin radar/chartplotter installation on a buddy’s boat,” he wrote on the Cruisers Forum. “I have managed to prototype an OpenCPN plug-in which will allow radar-overlay capabilities. This is a traditional reverse-engineering effort, with no support provided, expected, or required from Garmin.”

The Big Four are none too pleased with these hijinks—even if it takes a geek to make hacked radar work—because their business is to sell their multifunction displays (MFDs). Eliminate the MFD, and there go the profits. One counter-measure, heard mentioned at the Miami International Boat Show in February, would be to insert a “poison pill” into each radar, to prevent it from working with anything other than a company device.

The big radar makers also are sensitive to a new initiative by the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA)—a group to which they all belong—to develop an industry standard for high-bandwidth applications for video, and therefore radar and sonar, too. The Association, which developed the NMEA 2000 standard for shipboard electronics integration, has described the new OneNet protocol as “NMEA 2000 on steroids” because of its ability to support high-bandwidth applications over Ethernet. 

Interoperability

Behind the scenes, the U.S. Coast Guard continues to encourage the marine electronics industry to achieve what it calls “interoperability.” In the Coast Guard’s perfect world, everyone’s equipment could communicate with everyone else’s; the picture from a Furuno radar could be displayed on a Raymarine MFD, for example. 

Problem is, the Big Four have already built their own proprietary Ethernet systems for radar, beginning with Furuno’s NavNet back in 2000. And, to protect MFD sales, none of the manufacturers sees interoperability as being in their best interest right now. If that attitude were to change, however, OneNet could provide a means to achieve not only interoperability, but also to display radar—and sonar—directly on mobile devices via Wi-Fi.

Jeff Hummel at Rose Point says one speed bump on the road to iPad is that the big marine radar manufacturers have adopted pricing that concentrates profit in MFD sales and puts too little into the sale of an individual radar. “If they had the profit, they wouldn’t care where it was displayed,” Hummel says. “The iPad might force the market.”

One radar manufacturer outside the Big Four is Koden of Japan, which supplies stand-alone radars to PC navigation companies such as Rose Point and Nobeltec, which need PC radars, and provide radars to hardware makers such as Humminbird, to round out their product lines. These companies buy “open-architecture” Koden radars and put their own names on them. Obviously Koden is one manufacturer that can make money by selling radar alone—no MFD in the mix. 

In the U.S., SI-TEX represents Koden, and Allen Schneider is SI-TEX’s vice president for sales and product development. He can’t say whether Koden is on the path to developing an iOS or Android app as a radar interface but stresses it’s “absolutely possible.”

So the iPad may well be “forcing the market” as you read this, and we may see the future of marine electronics fully in the orbits of Planet Apple and Planet Android. And at that point the question of whether your Raymarine MFD will be able to display your Garmin radar may well be moot.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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