|Building a Boat Brain|
Part 2: Echoflight
By Ben Ellison — March 2002
Similarly, the hardware builder at least had well-defined software and input-device parameters as it set out to create a powerful, bulletproof marine computer. This task went to EchoFlight, a small Colorado-based company whose aviation background may account for why Knapp seemed at home on the flying Coast Guard boat. His experience building advanced avionics computers also explains why the Navigator is different from any "marinized" computer I’ve seen on the market. For starters, it is housed in a carved-out block of solid aluminum to minimize vibration failures and RF (radio frequency) interference and to facilitate a waterproof seal. It has familiar parts like a Pentium II processor, 128 megs of RAM, and a 10-gigabyte hard drive, but its circuit boards are all custom built to much higher standards and more focused design than normal in the PC industry.
Most striking are all the connectors sprouting from the back of the Navigator. The unit is clearly designed to be much more than a chartplotter, and, in fact, several major add-ons are well along the development curve. First up will be a "black box" transducer that will put a depth data box on the Navigator; also in testing is a radar transmitter that will provide overlaid or split-screen imagery. Eventually the Navigator will interface with digital engine technology, enabling it to alternately display gauges and diagnostics. Then there’s the satellite data connection, already an EchoFlight avionics product with a dedicated spot in the Navigator’s separate power supply box. Once perfected for marine use, the device will feed the Navigator weather overlay imagery and enable basic e-mail.
Now, imagine all those parts working together, and you’ll understand the glint in Brian Criner’s eye. He oversees electrical systems for Sea Ray’s Product Development and Engineering (PD&E) department and along with his boss Bruce Thompson is a prime creator behind this company exclusive. When he calls Navigator an "industry-changing product," he’s not just talking about the uniqueness of a true marine computer built right into a production boat; he sees Navigator bringing big benefits to his boats’ production, sales, and maintenance. Factory installers work with Sea Ray-designed and -tested devices that don’t change unless Sea Ray says so. Dealers thoroughly learn and can demo SRN (and become Maptech chart dealers). Sea Ray-authorized technicians are given coded access to the Navigator operating system for updating and repair. Eventually a customer might even call in from most anywhere and have Sea Ray diagnose engine and system problems using the Navigator’s wireless connection and networked data.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.