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Forward-Looking Sonar

Looking Ahead

The idea behind forward-looking sonar always made sense, but now Garmin may give the technology a market-expanding boost.

Like many small companies, Interphase Technologies was hurt by the economic downturn that struck America beginning in 2008. The family-owned maker of forward-looking sonar devices suffered another blow in 2010 with the death of cofounder Sharon Hicks, wife of 33 years to CEO Charles Hicks.

Semisubmerged shipping containers and other deadly obstacles are no match for Interphase’s forward-looking sonar.

The year 2012, however, marked a change in fortunes for Interphase and Hicks, and it may well prove a milestone in the history of sonar as it is used on recreational craft. 

Twelve months ago, Garmin bought the company, renamed Interphase’s California headquarters Garmin Santa Cruz, and retained Hicks and his people to operate the division. Hicks told his hometown newspaper that he signed the papers a day after remarrying, and the deal was announced to the world on Valentine’s Day just before the Miami International Boat Show. “We’ve had to be very careful and slow as far as introducing new products. Now we’re going to have the funding and marketing muscle to go like gangbusters after new products,” Hicks said at the time. “We’re going to gear up and do the R&D.” The newspaper reporter described Hicks as “ebullient.”

What Hicks didn’t say was that in the run-up to the acquisition Interphase had doubled down on the old family formula. Interphase had been working on breakthrough technology, and (one may speculate) this R&D effort proved a deciding factor behind the buyout. To appreciate what the future holds for forward-looking sonar, it’s best to have a grasp on what makes today’s technology tick.

First of all, why is Interphase sonar worth having? Its value while coastal cruising and beyond is indisputable if for no other reason than its ability to detect semisubmerged shipping containers invisible to radar and the naked eye. Containers are lost from cargo ships at a rate of 4,000 to 8,000 each year, and every offshore mariner dreads hitting one. Forward-looking sonar can also see underwater pinnacles, reefs, shallowing conditions, channel edges, submerged debris, whales, and manatees. 

Documentary filmmaker Sprague Theobald installed Interphase aboard his Nordhavn 57 Bagan in advance of his 2009 transit of the Northwest Passage. Theobald, justifiably afraid of hitting icebergs, says forward-looking sonar empowered him to “make a navigational decision before calamity.” The documentary film of the voyage, by the way, is being released this year.

In the beginning, Hicks adapted medical ultrasound technology to develop his first forward-looking sonar, called Matrix. Introduced in 1991, Matrix won innovation awards and acclaim from the marine press. Unlike conventional downward-looking sonar, which sends and receives vibrations through a single ceramic element, Matrix and later generations use eight elements. Interphase technology applies principles of wave physics, minutely varying the times between outgoing ultrasonic pulses from each of these elements—the phased array—to effectively steer a beam of sound without a single moving part. Hicks has compared his “steerable beam” to the sweep of a radar.

Today the company has two basic products—the SE-200 and the Ultrascan PC—with variations on each. The SE-200 is an analog device directly descended from Matrix. Depending on the transducer, the SE-200 Sonar Engine directs forward-looking beams to scan either vertically or horizontally. The beams are 12 degrees wide and sweep over 90 degrees in whichever mode you choose. The SE-200 is the more affordable of the two, and can be purchased for $1,900 with a single-axis transducer or $2,200 with one that allows both vertical and horizontal sweeps. 

In 2010, Interphase launched a digital version of the same technology with the release of its Ultrascan line for PCs. The Ultrascan sweeps up to 200 times faster than the SE-200 and also costs more, about $5,000 for the Ultrascan PC90 and $8,000 for the PC180. It uses the same transducers, however, so SE-200 owners can upgrade easily. Ultrascan has an added advantage in that its processor can connect wirelessly to a PC. 

The difference between the PC90 and PC180 systems is simple once you understand that the designation stands for degree of sweep. PC180 is designed for vessels with a centerline keel and actually employs two transducers.

“If you mount the transducer on one side of a keel, and it scans horizontally, it won’t be able to see what’s on the other side, but with two transducers, we wrote the software so it scans on the port side and automatically seamlessly switches over to the starboard side,” Hicks says. “You’re getting the full 180-degree scan without even noticing that it’s switching from transducer to transducer.”

Garmin says its engineers will work to integrate Interphase technology into its product line, suggesting that it will be available to customers who buy Garmin multifunction displays. Garmin also says it doesn’t have any near-term plans to launch new products using Interphase technology, but what that means depends on your definition of “near term.” 

Interviewed a few weeks prior to the buyout—and while talks with Garmin were still under way—Hicks said that a prototype of a next-gen device had been installed on a submarine and that he hoped that a consumer version would come to market some time in 2013. Garmin is the most opaque of the big four marine electronics manufacturers, so undoubtedly Hicks now labors under Garmin’s cone of silence about future products.

However, in that same pre-buyout interview, he gave a general description of the next sonar. The key, Hicks said, was doubling the number of ceramic elements in the transducer from eight to 16. Returns from 16 elements will bring more finely drawn and thus easier-to-interpret images to the helm. Anyone who has seen the imagery from sideways-looking structure sonars from Navico and Humminbird cannot fail to be impressed by their near-photographic verisimilitude. Hicks says his next sonars will approach that kind of quality.

It’s easy to see how such a refinement might increase the value of Interphase sonar as a tool for shallow-water navigation. In its present state, Interphase sonar’s deep-water benefits are unquestionable, but as the water shallows, it becomes more difficult to interpret the meaning of those color patches on the screen. 

“I think it’s safe to say that we see two different markets with the need for forward-looking sonar-collision avoidance for cruising boats and fishing boats interested in analyzing structure,” says Garmin spokesperson Carly Baltes. “We feel that as forward-looking sonar becomes more refined and user friendly, more and more boaters will want to include it as part of their boat’s electronics, so we expect the percentage [of users] to move up over time.”

The marriage of Garmin and Interphase bodes well for both parties. Even though a huge player in marine electronics, Garmin has thus far lacked a signature technology such as Navico’s Broadband Radar or Raymarine’s FLIR thermal cameras. Interphase brings unique proprietary technology to the relationship.

Besides its sheer mass in the market, Garmin’s greatest virtue may well be its ability to make equipment that is simple to use and affordably priced. Who knows? Garmin’s influence may someday make forward-looking sonar as common as radar on the waterways of America and the world.


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