Skip to main content

Stay Connected

What does it mean to have a “smart boat,” and how does the boat of the future function?

Many boaters got into the sport as a way of relaxing, but, as most of us find out sooner or later, when things break it can be anything but relaxing. This is especially true for those in northern climates where the boating season is so short—nothing will ruin a weekend faster than an unresponsive ship.

This is the scenario boat-monitoring products have been helping boaters avoid for years. But now, there’s lots of talk of connected boats, smart boats, the marine internet of things (IoT). So, what does it all mean?

Dan Harper, CEO of Siren Marine, described three tiers of boat monitoring and control: Perhaps it would work best to think of these tiers as a three-layered cake. The first layer is the boat monitor—a tried-and-true product that monitors critical parts of your boat (like batteries, bilge pumps and vessel location) and alerts you if any of them move outside of predefined ranges. Examples include products like BoatCommand, FloatHub and BoatFix’s monitor. The next layer is connected boat products: These devices build on the capabilities of the boat monitor but add more systems to the mix, likely connecting to NMEA-2000, digital switching and other onboard products. Siren Marine’s MTC, GOST’s Apparition, Navico and Naviop are all connected boating products. The final layer is smart boat products: These products take all of the information gathered in the previous layers of cake and allow you or the system to take action based on that data. This last layer is just beginning to make it onto boats.

Advances in “smart boat” technology—like this Nautic-On system—allow you to leave your boat and still stay connected to it.

Advances in “smart boat” technology—like this Nautic-On system—allow you to leave your boat and still stay connected to it.

Now for some practical examples: Let’s say your shore power connection failed and, as a result, your house batteries are no longer being charged. A boat monitor would likely see your batteries eventually decline below a 12v threshold you’ve set and send you an email and a text message. A connected boat system would likely also monitor your shore power connection. Should that connection fail, it will alert you, while simultaneously tracking your house bank batteries. A smart boat system would have all this information and the ability to do something about it. It would see that shore power is out and the batteries are getting low, and would know that there’s enough fuel in the tanks to start the generator to recharge the batteries to a safe level.

My family and I are getting ready to leave Have Another Day for six weeks or so while we head home to Chicago. She is well monitored and will be carefully looked after by the marina, but I am still concerned about returning to a petri dish of mold and mildew. I’ll make a guess at the best compromise of humidity and temperature control versus power savings. I have multiple temperature and humidity monitors connected to my NMEA-2000 network; it would sure be nice to be able to use those readings to automatically adjust my air conditioning settings to minimize both cost and any potential mold. A smart boat system with an NMEA-2000 connected air-conditioning system could do just that.

Like everything else on our boats, engines are getting smarter and better connected. Brunswick’s Nautic-On advertises a welcome to smarter boating. Nautic-On has worked closely with their sister company Mercury Marine, leveraging Mercury’s SmartCraft protocol to closely monitor engines and report any issues. However, Nautic-On’s attempt at a smart boating device is a little different. Where other companies have built boat monitors first, then added further connected capabilities and finally smarts, Nautic-On has skipped the connected tier. They’ve concentrated on batteries, bilge pumps and engines. Nautic-On has focused on partnering with boatbuilders to equip new boats with their system and also to alert dealers and builders when issues arise on boats with their system installed. The product aims to make boating easier by automatically sending your marine service providers a notification—so that if you experience an issue over the weekend they can be ready to fix it on Monday. I’ve tried the Nautic-On system on my own boat and don’t think it’s a good fit yet for retrofit installs.

BoatFix is another company taking a slightly different approach. BoatFix offers a boat monitor that keeps an eye on batteries, bilge pumps, location, engine hours and theft sensors, but even in this era of complete automation they’ve kept a human touch. First, for critical alerts they notify the boat owner—and their designated contacts—via phone. Second, they have trained mechanics on call 24/7 to assist in diagnosing and resolving issues. The company’s founder, Alastair Crawford, reports 63 percent of calls to their mechanics end with the problem resolved.

So, where is this all going? What kinds of capabilities will boaters enjoy in the near future? If I dust off my (cracked) crystal ball I think we should expect the pace of advancement to accelerate in the coming years. We will have a lot more data with almost every major system on the boat connected either via NMEA-2000 or by IP (internet protocol). Once these connections are made, aided by a solid internet connection, we’ll move past just monitoring and alerting when things go wrong.

There are already customized systems that allow owners to control aspects of their boat remotely. In the near future, you will easily be able to open your boat’s app before you arrive, turn on the lights, turn down the air conditioning, start the gyrostabilizer and get a report on the connected systems on board. And not just on high-end custom boats, either.

I also expect much more intelligent alerts. Today, we get an alert that the house battery bank has fallen below a preset threshold. But in reality, this is just a symptom of bigger issues. Did the battery charger fail? Maybe a breaker tripped? With each of these systems connected, we will get the status of the breakers and measurements from the battery charger and know exactly what the problem is before ever heading to the boat.

Many insurance carriers offer discounts for boats equipped with qualifying boat monitors, so it’s possible your investment will pay for itself over a few years. However, with the capabilities coming the payback will be not just financial, but something just as important: convenience and peace of mind.

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.