Peeking into the Crystal Ball

Electronics — October 2003
By Ben Ellison

Peeking into the Crystal Ball
Big changes are afoot in both GPS and the marine electronics industry.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: GPS
• Part 2: GPS
• Electronics Q&A
• Si-Tex
• C-Map
• Deluo
• Maptech
• SetSail

 Related Resources
• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

As a group, boat electronics have been on quite a roll, but I detect two trends about to simultaneously detonate, and the results will be game changing. The first is about how GPS, already on a fast track, will thoroughly permeate life ashore and afloat. The second, related, is about how the expanding promise of marine electronics is too often obscured by hairballs of confusion and the way yacht builders are consequently rethinking the traditional model of how boats and their gizmos are paired and marketed.

Look closely at the photograph above; those two itsy-bitsy chips, plus a tiny antenna, are the total hardware needed for “Assisted GPS” (A-GPS). A-GPS is a technology that has been demonstrated to make a cellphone perform better in some ways than any GPS I’ve ever used, acquiring cold-start fixes in milliseconds even deep inside urban canyons or suburban shopping malls. The developer, Global Locate, is just one of several companies fighting ferociously for a cellular GPS market largely fueled by the FCC’s E (enhanced) 911 mandates. Stock analysts are also excited and expect GPS chip sales to increase a hundredfold over the next few years, with attendant drops in size and price.

Navionics’ director of OEM business, Bruce Angus, confirms the trend, describing how regular GPS chip sets that had cost $75 a year and half ago have now been replaced with single $15 chips that are smaller and use less power. And while A-GPS is dependent on a wireless data connection for its amazing performance, we can look forward to some significant improvements in the stand-alone GPS more suitable to the high seas. Recall that NAVSTAR, as GPS is formally known, was originally developed as a U.S. military system and rather casually opened to civilian use in only 1993. Now it’s essential to civilians and businesses around the world, and both the Departments of Defense and Transportation are determined to make it better.

The first GPS satellite with a new civilian “L2C” signal will launch later this year. The L2C signal makes for easier satellite acquisition and tracking and will also inhibit ionospheric interference. The new signal won’t really be useful until enough satellites are launched, roughly by 2008, and by then new birds will also include an even more powerful and precise L5 band. (The schedule may be sped up after a presidential commission reviews GPS this winter.) Meanwhile, significant money is being spent on WAAS GPS correction—it should be deemed fully operational sometime this year—and the little-known National DGPS is also being built out, eventually offering three- to nine-foot accuracy even on inland U.S. waterways.

Plus the European system, Galileo, is slowly but surely making its way toward reality, meaning that there will be a whole other GPS constellation to reference. Finally, it’s worth remembering that the DOT declared back in 2001—ironically, the day before 9/11—that GPS was so important, and so susceptible to malevolent jamming and spoofing, that all its relevant agencies should come up with an alternative means of electronic navigation. The decisions are due soon, and at least the U.S. Coast Guard and FAA seem likely to choose a new and improved Loran system. The U.S. Congress even increased its appropriation for Loran modernization from $19 to $25 million for 2003.

The obvious conclusion is that electronic location awareness is going to work well everywhere and be in everything—phones, cars, portable computers, dog tags, who knows what? We, or at least our children, will expect to know where we are at all times, including any and all relevant info about that place and where everything we value is, too. On big vessels the ultimate plotter may sport multiple GPS differential aids and Loran backup, but we’re already seeing mass consumer electronics—PCs, PDAs, even watches—compete with dedicated plotters. Shopping for cellphones is hellacious right now; imagine when they add mapping features and show up in boat shops.

Next page > Part 2: These darn electronics have become important. > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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