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Electronics

The Road to the Future

GPS technology has been the major force in bringing marine route planning into the 21st century. The Navstar GPS satellite network that made its way to us after the 1986 Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) was a godsend: CRADA brought commercially viable, federalized positioning technology to the private sector, and we boaters benefitted with the chartplotters that grace our helms today.

The screen shots from BMW’s iDrive show real-time traffic updates (left) that enter your car via FM radio signals. The 2-D (right) and 3-D driving directions are easy to follow. Note the traffic icons on both maps; iDrive’s dynamic routing can plan an alternative route to your destination.

But some salts still trust only their paper-chart skills and situational awareness, not a helm dominated by a bevy of electronics, and others are still trying to get used to replacing paper charts, dividers, and parallel rules. PMY electronics editor Ben Ellison observes that the technologies that drive the navigation and communication systems have advanced so quickly that even geeks sometimes are overwhelmed. Today's displays can present so much information—live weather, high-resolution, 3-D imagery, closed-circuit TV images, and so on—that a helmsman becomes mesmerized, leading to what Ellison calls "computer-assisted groundings and collisions."

Such issues do not seem to crop up on the road. It appears that a high comfort level with navigational electronics comes more quickly to drivers than boaters. Original equipment and aftermarket automotive navigation systems have surpassed the on-water version in terms of user-friendly formats and convenience features. To find out why this is, I spoke with Garmin, a major manufacturer of aftermarket GPS systems, and BMW, which offers navigational systems on all of its models.

The control center of BMW’s iDrive navigation system is the knob at the center console (seen at bottom right in photo). Spinning it in either direction and pushing down on it brings up various menus on the 8.8-inch diagonal LCD screen on the dashboard. The knob allows the driver to access a rich array of menus without taking his/her eyes off the road to look for keys like one might do with a touch-screen system.

"Ease of use is the most important thing," says Garmin media relations manager Ted Gartner, stressing that in-car navigation has to be intuitive or drivers simply won't buy it. A look at the home page for the $799 Garmin nvi 660—the aftermarket GPS unit rated highest by CNET.com—shows that Gartner's statement rings true. Compared to the array of softkeys found on most chartplotters, the nvi 660 has a touchscreen that a six-year-old could master in no time. Same goes for the nvi 680 (price not available). By contrast, it took me all summer to learn how to access all of the information available from the chartplotter on PMY's company boat.

The nvi 660 has a touchscreen home page that can be mastered in no time (left). Dynamic content, like fuel prices, movie times, traffic, and weather are provided by MSN Direct and free for one year (right), after which it’s $49.95 annually.

I enjoyed the same kind of intuitive system found on the Garmins when I climbed into the driver's seat of a 2007 BMW M6. BMW product communications specialist William Scully walked me through the navigational system's myriad features, but after ten minutes I was scrolling through them myself. Instead of a touchscreen interface, BMW's iDrive uses a knob on the console and an 8.8-inch (diagonal) LCD screen on the dashboard. Pushing and turning the knob brings up various menus without forcing the driver to take his eyes off the road to look for softkeys on a touchscreen. Moreover a touchscreen would need to be within arm's reach of the driver, a logistical challenge and safety concern unless, as on some cars, you cannot input commands while the vehicle is moving.

Three-dimensional displays common on marine plotters also make for steeper learning curves. Gartner says the operating system for Garmin's new 5000 Series marine chartplotter, which was adapted from that on the nvi, offers 3-D viewing with a fishfinding underwater view and a topside view. iDrive also offers both overhead 2-D rendering and a 3-D perspectives with views ranging from an altitude of 450 feet to 500 miles by turning the knob. High-resolution renderings and photos are available to boaters from several manufacturers. Simrad goes a step further: Its GB60, or Glass Bridge, displays 2-D and 3-D renderings and utilizes a clever armrest- or helm-mounted remote that's similar to the iDrive knob. But most chartplotters offer 2-D views that while effective may not provide enough detail, particularly in unfamiliar places.

Views of the sea floor (left) and harbors (right) have never looked so detailed. Simrad offers 12-, 15, and 19-inch monitors along with advanced software that’s able to create images like these with its GB60 system. A black-box PC powers the system that PMY electronics editor Ben Ellison has called “the most connected [he’s] ever seen,” as it includes four camera/video inputs, two NMEA 2000 ports, and more.

What about updated Points of Interest (POI) data? Ellison found that on maritime systems, POIs are often badly out of date, something I found to be true while cruising the Chesapeake last year. That's why at this point your best bet is to leaf through area-specific, annually updated cruising guides like Dozier's Waterway Guides. In comparison, Garmin's static POI data—6 million listings, including hospitals, ATMs, and hotels, etc.—is available free from Navteq and a breeze to access. BMW offers the same data, broken down in categories like business and services, dining and entertainment, and recreation and attractions. Both offer yearly updates. So why can't boaters get a DVD or media card with annually updated POIs or a digital waterway guide that's compatible with our chartplotters?

Another excellent automotive feature is integral Bluetooth, which I would have loved to have had on our company boat. Last summer I had both the VHF and my cellphone going as I piloted Office Ours down a narrow channel and then weaved through dozens of moored vessels in search of a transient slip I'd reserved several weeks before. With Bluetooth I could have sync'd my cellphone or PDA to Office Ours' chartplotter, scrolled through my address book or POI data, and talked hands-free to the dockmaster via speakerphone. Imagine rolling over POIs and then making slip arrangements, dinner reservations, tee times, etc., without having to jump back and forth from your cellphone to your VHF.

While all of these features are excellent and can benefit us in a number of ways, there will still be the naysayers who think that nav systems are meant for one thing: presenting navigation data in a simple, clear way. For many others, including me, superb navigation data is only a starting point. We go to our vessels to relax with friends and family and explore new places, so why not be assisted by the rich data that's available on everything from dining to weather to lovely off-the-beaten-track moorings? By integrating the aforementioned features that are commonplace in on-road nav systems, marine electronics can make our trips easier and safer, too. But they still can't choose which place to visit. It''ll always be your job to define the waypoints.

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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