Brains in the Bilge

Electronics — February 2004
By Ben Ellison

Brains in the Bilge
Can a rocket scientist make a dent in the highly competitive, ever-smarter world of autopilots?

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Autopilots
• Part 2: Autopilots
• Electronics Q&A
• Furuno
• Simrad
• Marelux
• Wesmar

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• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

I know of two explanations for the Cheshire cat grin that Doug Ford (right) wears as constantly as he does suspenders. First, he regularly gets to fish for salmon in his beloved native Oregon waters just the way he likes, by himself. Second, he’s convinced that he’s designed “the world’s best-performing autopilot.” Ford and his colleagues at Nautamatic Marine Systems are not shy about that bold claim; they even publish a brochure with page after page of detailed comparisons to the big brands in the field, and they offer a full money-back guarantee.

The TR-1 Gladiator certainly is different. For starters, it’s missing two components common to just about every other autopilot on the market. Instead of a fixed control head with an LCD display of rudder angle, desired course, actual course, etc. (like the Furuno NavPilot shown below, for instance), the TR-1 has only the wired remote and can’t display rudder angle anyway because it lacks the necessary feedback sensor. What, no rudder-angle sensor? Marine electronics gospel saith that an autopilot must have two data streams—heading and rudder position—to be tuned for a particular boat’s steering habits and to steer a straight course in variable conditions. Most will also make smart use of boat speed gathered from a GPS or paddle wheel, but that’s optional; again, the TR-1 is odd in requiring engine tachometer input. (It also only works with hydraulic steering systems.)

A rudder sensor is an electro-mechanical device stuck in a remote, unfriendly area of a boat. It’s a pain to install and subject to comparatively high failure rates, so not having one is definitely a good thing. But how does the TR-1 work without it? That’s the subject of speculation and skepticism among other autopilot manufacturers. One competitor told me that the TR-1 constantly “hunts,” making tiny rudder adjustments just to check itself, which causes extra wear and tear on the equipment; another says that the TR-1 somehow gets rudder angle by tracking the electromagnetic field generated by the hydraulic pump motor, a technique that is ultimately unreliable. I doubt that anyone outside Nautamatic knows for sure how the thing actually works (yet), and Ford is not telling. He just says that his technology is “PFM” (Pure *%$#*$% Magic) and grins.

Ford will talk about how he got here. He really is a rocket scientist or, more specifically, a mechanical engineer who developed rocket-guidance systems for Boeing Aerospace. He also worked on holographic heads-up displays for pilots and ultra-micro automation used to fix defective silicon processors. But he gave that all up ten years ago to start Nautamatic with the goal of building an autopilot that would let him and his buddies effectively slow-troll for salmon without a mate. The result was the TR-1 Gold model, apparently able to fully manage the kicker outboards used in that fishery, even controlling throttle and transmission. Today Ford’s company dominates this niche market.

Still, Nautamatic is an unknown brand in the pleasureboat market, and competitors would not be particularly interested in its general-purpose Gladiator model, with or without rudder sensor, if it didn’t also perform in noteworthy ways. It does. It’s the only autopilot I know of that will steer in reverse, and it also seems to work well at very low speeds. The unit is even able to hold position in a current. It is capable of all sorts of programmed maneuvers, visible on the controller on page 60, many of them customizable. All this is particularly attractive to fishermen but also useful in a man-overboard situation, while waiting for a bridge to open, and probably in many ways we can’t think of yet.

Next page > Part 2: Autopilots continued > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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

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