NMEA 2000—able to bring tons of essential sensor data to a computer in an easy, standardized way—should be a huge opportunity for marine software developers. But there have been two major impediments. One is the lack of enough N2K networks to make its use worthwhile. That is going to change as more major manufacturers get seriously on board. For instance, tonight, when the NMEA Conference exhibition hall opens, I will get to see Furuno’s new range of N2K instruments (above) and also Airmar’s new high spec N2K/0183 GPS compass (yeehaa…and more on those soon). The other, particularly for small developers, is the substantial cost of getting a NMEA 2000 product certified. But I’m hearing about an impending NMEA initiative called “Intelligent Gateway” that sounds like it will largely take care of this problem. The concept is that a N2K gateway like Maretron´s USB100 can act as a firewall insuring that any software on the other side of it can not cause problems on the network, therefore minimizing certification cost. In fact, the plan is to offer a new NMEA 2000 PC “Approval” status for a measly $100. Any company could make and certify such a gateway and Maretron tells me that it might eventually make a second model that would be less expensive because it would not also offer NMEA 0183 translations. I’m hoping that all this means that small operations could, say, develop performance sailing software or conning screens using the same data that’s flowing to those new Furuno instruments…or who knows what! There’d still be an issue for small developers, though, which is the high cost of the documentation that details the NMEA 2000 standard messages. I get why NMEA charges a lot for certification—it finances the certification tool itself as well as the maintenance and ongoing development of the Standard. But I know I’m not the only person who thinks the whole excellent concept would move along faster if the documentation was freely available. I’m going to try and make that case to some of the folks who make these decisions, but could use your help. Please, if you have an interest, write a comment on this subject. Thanks!
PS, 10/20: Well, I didn’t really look at the documentation prices when I linked to that NMEA page above. They’ve been debundled, and NMEA makes a pretty good case that getting into N2K is feasible for even a small developer, especially now that some testing houses are able to do the certification. NMEA officials also told me that the Intelligent Gateway is for real, and Maretron just submitted the first gateway for final certification. The “Approval” cost will be more than $100 but hasn’t been set quite yet. At any rate a small software developer wanting to explore N2K might only need a Gateway, a $325 NMEA Trade membership, and the $495 electronic Database of PGN details to get started. More on this as I learn more.
Navionics just announced its new Platinum+ chart cards, which I got a peek at along the coast of Cape Cod last month. As the name implies Plus, or “+”, takes Platinum’s numerous features up a notch, or two. The top down photo maps and panoramic port photos are higher res, the bathy data underlying the 3D screens is more detailed, and the coastal pilots are more tightly integrated. I was particularly struck by the photo maps.
Ever seen this software before? Yup, that's the same touch screen navigation program that Maptech started developing as the Sea Ray Navigator (SRN) back in 2001, and also sold as part of its own i3 hardware system. Well, things have changed. You still can't buy the program by itself, but Captn Jack's is now offering Maptech Navigator Touch Screen, as it's called, bundled with a Motion tablet PC, and will soon also offer it on a Samsung UMPC (maybe the Q2?). I tried it on the Motion above (bigger picture here, and note that the tablet is inside a splash proof case), and found that it worked darn well with the stylus (though, as discussed recently, I think it will be even better when you can use either finger or stylus). In fact, damn slick with the included EMTAC Bluetooth GPS and non-marine software. (I also tried Maptech Navigator Pro on the tablet and, as fine a program as it is, I found it awkward to use with a stylus.)
Sorry about my acronym thing! The relatively new and unknown Alden AE-3300 is a black box wide band receiver with included PC software that lets you easily receive Weatherfax, Navtex, Telex, and even medium and high frequency DSC messages, besides listening to most any frequency between 9 KHz and 30 MHz. Hence in marine terms it’s pretty much an all in one receiver. Check the screen shot full size
. Not only did the AE-3300 automatically demodulate the Navtex messages and save them as text files when tuned to 518 KHz, you can schedule automated channel changes (as I have for Boston Fax at the bottom of the screen). I found the AE-3300 easier to use than the Icom PCR 2500 I’m also testing in terms of finding and saving interesting frequencies, but that’s in part because it has less controls that I’m unfamiliar with (but may be valuable). I also compared the radios using the same antenna and HAM signal, and they performed very similarly. What the Icom has, besides lots more frequencies, is all sorts of ways to scan them, a more sophisticated memory banking system, and a wide pool of users and accessories. There’s even alternate Bonito RadioCom control software that seems to do the marine Weatherfax, Navtex, and Telex decoding chores, plus some non marine radio wizardry I’d never hear of like SSTV.
I’m back in Maine briefly, which means I’m back to testing a couple of black box wideband radio receivers. And I mean WIDE. The Icom PCR2500 can tune in most anything from 10 kHz to 3300 MHz—less a few gaps like the cell phone bands (you have to be official to get that model). And I’ve got a pretty serious antenna strung from the peak of my house across the backyard. Some mornings I’ve heard participants in the Waterway Net at 7.268 MHz LSB, including some who seemed to be in the Chesapeake and one voice I’m pretty sure I recognized as Marti Brown, who was probably transmitting from her boat in Marathon, FL. But frankly I’m fairly rusty at marine single sideband use, and know zilch about amateur radio (HAM) usage. So if anyone has suggestions for interesting frequencies I might find signal on up here at 45N 67W, I’m all ears, so to speak. I’m also very interested in hearing from you boaters who are using HF transceivers or receivers now, or plan to when you head over the horizon in that dream boat. I’m about to write a column about PC-controlled receivers specifically and the use of SSB, HAM, Navtex, Weatherfax, cruising nets, etc. Thanks in advance for any and all input!
I felt bad about my harsh review of the AnyTrack monitoring device (and the inflated Sprint cell coverage that gives it Assisted GPS abilities). So I held on to the unit, and tried it again on a trip to Cape Cod, where it did pretty well. I also brought it to New York City, where I figured its claimed ability to determine location inside buildings would really shine. Well, not so much. The AnyTrack locator/transceiver and I are ensconced in my mom’s apartment at the corner of 16th St and 6th Ave (aka Avenue of the Americas), but time after time AnyTrack.net—full screen here —claims to locate the unit with “HIGH” accuracy at 84 5th Ave., which is quite a ways away if you were actually trying to find something in this dense urban environment. And that’s despite the fact that I’ve wandered the neighborhood with the unit in my pocket and set to 10 minute auto tracking, which it performed only so so. I can only conclude that this technology needs a lot of work.
I've been testing this PulseTech Xtreme Marine 12v “five-stage maintenance” charger for a month or so, and am impressed. What with Annie G's two batteries—one for the electric trolling motor, another for backup and electronics—plus some old batteries I’m trying to keep alive until someone buys Ralph, I’ve had plenty of material to work with. I really like how the Xtreme first tests a battery and then tells me with simple to understand LEDs what it’s up to as it goes through its multi step process. And while it’s impossible for me to really see the claimed desulphation process in action, the batteries certainly seemed very well charged. (Plus PulseTech has some scientific studies, using x-ray, that seem to back its claims). I was even able to use it to bring back a dead flat battery which someone around here had allowed to go completely dry; I did have to start the charge with a conventional “dumb” charger but the Xtreme (which first found it “bad”) took it from there and seemed to really perk it up. Charging a really low battery does take time, though, as the Xtreme only puts out 2.5 amps in bulk mode (5 amps claimed effective); hence the “maintenance” caveat. But you can just leave the charger attached to a battery indefinitely as it will stop charging and go into float/pulse mode when a battery is topped off. There are other pulse chargers and battery conditioners out there (a good explanation of charging, pulsing, and desulphation here), but Xtreme seems like a winner.
The truth is I sometimes use Panbo myself as a sort of diary of where I’ve been and what I was up to, at least in the boating/electronics portion of my life. So I’m sticking up this photo a friend (thanks, Howard!) took last Thursday evening. It was amazingly warm—I sailed until after sunset in just a t-shirt—but the signs of Fall are there…the changing leaves, the schooners getting decommissioned and prepped for shrink wrap. (And, by the way, for your sense of Camden geography that tower on Mt. Battie is where I take Panbo’s header photos.) So I hauled Annie G. yesterday, not just because the season is winding down, but because I’ll be on the road for a while. First a week in NYC visiting the boat’s namesake, me mum, who’s fetched up on one those medical shoals of old age. Then back here briefly, then NMEA conference on Amelia Island, FL, back to NYC, and finally to FLIBS. I’ve got tons of material for Panbo posts, but some days may not get around to it. If you live where there’s a real winter, get some last boat rides in!
Check out the full size screen shot. I took it here at my desk while designing a custom screen for Maretron’s N2KView monitoring and control application. I was picturing myself the master of a high-end cruiser putting together the screen I’d like to have accessible anywhere on the boat—and off it—when anchored. Which is completely possible, given the concept at work here. In fact, the data you see is real stuff coming out the lab’s NMEA 2000 network, through a Maretron USB Gateway into the lab laptop where it’s being packetized and served into my home network, in this case via WiFi. Zounds!
I’m not sure what Raymarine’s rational is for creating its own proprietary NMEA 2000 cabling system, though I’ve been studying the brochures and manuals available (on Ray’s nicely updated site). Aside from the small diameter (11mm) of the connectors, the features touted in the ST70 brochure—“rugged and waterproof”, “quick and easy” install, etc.—are similar to the DeviceNet cabling NMEA tried to impose as a standard physical layer.