Written by Ben Ellison on Apr 17, 2014 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub
While Simrad announced ForwardScan at the Miami Boat Show, details are scarce and the concept diagram doesn't really show what a ForwardScan screen is going to look like. Yes, like other Forward Looking Sonar (FLS) systems, the goal is to display the water column and ocean floor in front of the vessel to "help boaters eliminate the worry of potential groundings in unfamiliar waters," and yes, FowardScan is the first FLS to be fully integrated into a multifunction display system. Well, I've hounded Simrad for more information -- all of which sounds good -- and it also looks like I will get to test ForwardScan against what seems like the most similar existing product...
First there's the news that the $699 ForwardScan option will not require a black box. There will simply be a software update to the Simrad NSS evo2 combo displays that already include CHIRP Sonar and StructureScan HD, after which an installer can just plug the ForwardScan transducer into that #7 port shown above. Obviously one NSS evo2 can not be connected to both Structure- and ForwardScan transducers, but if you have two MFDs on the network, both will be able to show both types of sonar (as well as regular fishfinding). The SonarHub module will get a similar update, so it will be another way to get ForwardScan (plus more varieties of CHIRP) onto a Simrad network, including existing NSS Sport, NSE, and NSO displays. (I presume that B&G Zeus displays will also get ForwardScan capability eventually, as FLS is a type of sonar that keelboaters tend to care about :-)
Simrad has published a photo of the ForwardScan transducer, which fits in a standard Airmar retractable housing. In fact, I understand that they may soon offer a housing kit so that anxious boaters will be prepared when the transducer ships, possibly "midsummer". I believe it will consist of a stainless SS617 housing and some fairing material, so the transducer can be installed vertical to the waterline. I'm going to use a similar bronze B617 in the same forward keel 2-inch hole where an Airmar DST800 smart transducer has worked pretty well, but that plastic housing is not recommended due to the leverage possible with a transducer that protrudes from the bottom about two inches. (Given the standard housing and built-in water valve, I could conceivably switch back to the DST800 or even the Airmar CA500 underwater camera I've long wanted to try, though I'm optimistic that ForwardScan will be worth a long test.)
At any rate, note the similarity between the Simrad FLS transducer and the slightly larger EchoPilot transducer I installed about 12 years ago on good old Ralph. Indeed, ForwardScan will also project a narrow vertical sonar beam (about 10 x 85 degrees) that will extend from straight down -- hence the depth reading directly below the transducer -- forward and up almost to the water surface. And I'm told that ForwardScan will also use a bottom profile display something like what EchoPilot has evolved over the years, though purportedly "better".
Now that particular small, monochrome EchoPilot Bronze display above is the bottom of their line, and I'm not sure I ever saw it at its best (there may have been a connector issue), but even when I didn't completely trust the Bronze to show me underwater obstructions ahead, my eye still wanted to check it out while poking around in unfamiliar and/or skinny waters. Not many boaters have tried even low end FLS, but that's a natural display to use and potentially quite valuable.
Meanwhile, EchoPilot may be a small UK-based company (renowned for their satirical Christmas cards) but they've stayed focused on developing FLS. Their products are also now enthusiastically distributed in the U.S. by Gemeco, who approached me last fall about testing the Platinum FLS Video Engine seen above (putting FLS on a Garmin MFD). Gemeco said that many of their dealers, particularly along the rocky West Coast, report happy EchoPilot customers, and they wanted to get the word out. That was before Simrad ForwardScan was announced at less than half the price and it seemed possible for me to test both FLS systems head-to-head, but EchoPilot is confident that it will do well in comparison. The challenge is on!
Before this comparison can happen, I have much installation work to do and ForwardScan has to make it out of the development lab. The possibilities for safer, more relaxed cruising and exploring are exciting -- and my PassageMaker friend Peter Swanson seems to share the feeling -- but I will attempt to be reasonable about expectations because I know that looking ahead with sonar is hard. Back in 2002, I interviewed several FLS users for a still-online PMY article that's aptly subtitled "Magic it's not, but cruisers who understand forward-looking sonar's limits are pleased with what it can do for them." The EchoPilot demo screens above tell some of the story. A narrow forward fan beam cannot capture the bottom detail that can be created when a similar beam is fired sideways and added to the display line by line. EchoPilot also warns that its FLS cannot see ahead more than 8 times the current depth, and only promises a range of 200 meters in deep water (and I rarely see screenshots greater than 100m).
I understand that Simrad ForwardScan will have the same range and depth limitations, but maybe their engineers can tweak a clearer bottom profile out of a similar sonar beam, or maybe there's something quite different about their beam. There's a lot of nuance to this technology that we may never know, but we will eventually see the results. And let's not forget that Garmin's active sonar team has access to the assets of FLS developer Interphase, or that Furuno also seems to have relevant intellectual property and once previewed the intriguing FL-7000. Raymarine is no sonar slouch either, and the impressive seeming CPT-120 CHIRP sonar and downview transducer is also going in poor Gizmo's bottom.
Finally, it's fun to see what's possible with a large budget for complex FLS transducers and processors. Gemeco reports that the $10,000 EchoPilot FLS 3D is also doing well (in a much smaller market) and the FarSounder demo videos are ever more impressive, with a claimed 3D 1/2 mile range even at 25 knots (though at about 10x the cost). It's also possible to put a high-end multibeam sonar into a superyacht tender and send the data back to the mother ship over WiFi, which is what's happening with a new WASSP feature illustrated below. (Come to think of it, most any tender could be equipped with the recently discussed SonarPhone T-Box.) Do you see some form of forward looking sonar in your boating future?