N2K "Intelligent Gateway", & let's lobby NMEA

Oct 17, 2007


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!



Yes I would support NMEA 2000 if the cost were reasonable. So far the demand for NMEA 2000 has been just nil. Hopefully that will change so I can justify doing the development.

Posted by: GPSNavX at October 17, 2007 7:27 PM

I won't hesitate to chime in loudly that I agree completly with you Ben.

This unique method of charging for the documentation to cover costs of the standard should be abolished. Perhaps a better method is a $5 license fee per unit of N2K product shipped, excluding the first 100 units ?


Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 8:05 PM

Lots of stuff today!

First, those Furuno instruments look very interesting! Hopefully Furuno will put some information on their web site so we can get up to speed before FLIBS.

Second, I don't know what the cost of certification actually is so I can't comment on whether it's prohibitive or not. I do know that it's critical that any equipment connected to the bus not crash the bus and that anyone in the hardware business is going to have to be decently funded to develop, manufacture and support a hardware product. Is the cost of certification really holding that back? We need more facts.

That said, NMEA is an industry organization that if it's like most industry organizations, is essentially controlled by the biggest players. As we know, they have been giving us a mixed message about N2K because they're afraid it will cut into their proprietary revenues. There is no big secret on how to promote a standard, if they wanted to lower the barriers, they know how to do it. I think the issue is more one of will than way.

Maybe the Furuno announcement will break the dam of market demand open because if they fully support N2K, then the other's will need to explain why you should invest in their proprietary network.

Just to ensure there is no ambiguity, I think the sooner there are industry standards for all data types the sooner we'll all be willing to upgrade our systems. It will also make it much easier, and thus more likely, for us to upgrade in the future because we don't have to rewire the boat!

How hard can this be? There is an abundance of inexpensive networking technology available off the shelf. If the manufacturers want to grow their businesses, they should really get behind some standards, not give it the wink and nod approach like they've given N2K up to now.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 17, 2007 10:06 PM

NMEA 2000 is based to a very large extent on other existing standards - DeviceNet (connectors), ISOBUS (a communication protocol based on the SAE J1939 protocol), and CAN (Controller Area Network) Unfortunately, these standards are controlled by SDOs (Standards Development Organizations) who choose to charge for their standards. Nothing NMEA can do about it.

NMEA does publish certain information such as PGNs (Parameter Group Numbers) with descriptions (Latest list is V1.21 August 2007)

One thing NMEA could do is encourage the development a set of high level software APIs (application layer level?) to enable third party implementors more easily access the data on the bus. One possibility would be an abstraction layer similar to the SNIA XAM initiative for storage area networks.

Posted by: Finnbarr P. Muphy at October 17, 2007 10:36 PM

I've just retired after 40 years in the software development business. I cannot recall any successful and/or lasting technology that resulted from this kind of approach. Software developers need to tinker and play to come up with great ideas. NMEA has just shut the door to many great ideas that will now never see the light of day.

Posted by: SurlyJoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 17, 2007 10:36 PM

SurlyJoe, how is that?

With the Maretron bridge you have access to everything on the bus from a PC/Mac. You can't write data back to the bus, but you can certainly do some nice display and computational work.

What is is that the s/w developers need that is not available?

Posted by: Russ at October 18, 2007 12:36 AM

NMEA 2000? Perhaps they should have called it NMEA2015... at the rate they are going it will take 20 years before (if) it get decent use.

Posted by: David at October 18, 2007 3:39 AM

API's ?? Firewalls ??

This is insane. There are much better ways to make it easy for a component developer to reliably incorporate a communication protocol into their device reliably and cheap in most every other industry! How about a cheap marine equivalent of an ethernet NIC card on a chip with a software stack that, in providing an API to accept data for transmission on the bus, becomes "the API".

Maybe this even exists, I don't know much about N2K (can't get the documentation !), but suspect once the will power is there, direct proven solutions to supporting inovative multi vendor solutions reliably should be the path.

Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 7:27 AM

By the way NMEA, how is the API or other solution to meet the desire/need for one vendors N2K display to change configuration parameters on an another vendors sensor ?

I don't know the spec (to much $$$ for me to purchase) but I suspect that when a standard for this comes out replacing proprietary messages used today, some N2K equipment we purchase now will be left behind. Five years is way to long to wait for a solution to this generic requirement on a protocol intended for this industry.

If there was a wider community in N2K (access to documentation and collaboration initiatives at least similar to what happens in open source projects today in other industries), I bet this problem would be licked already !!

Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 7:53 AM

I am a perfect example of lost sales to the marine electronics industry this year.

My best intentions to purchase an ultrasonic speed sensor, solid state compass, and ultrasonic mast weather station, resulted in only a purchase of the ultrasonic speed sensor, as I couldn't get satisfactory answers to integration questions or assurances of compatibility to proceed with the others. The result is that the industry got only 30% of my intended 2007 marine electronics spending on upgrading an existing install.

Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 8:00 AM

I am also dismayed that ideas I sent to various vendors over the last 2 months (on how to use data from each other to provide a wind speed and angle compensated for sailboat mast movement at low wind speeds or rolling seas) seems so ridiculously futuristic given the issues they are dealing with now.

Rant … rant … rant

Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 8:00 AM

Ben …take this to NMEA Member's,

In general (even going beyond N2K) I am a perfect example of lost sales to the marine electronics industry in 2007 due to a failure of standards that could have made it easier for me to upgrade my boat this year.

I started the season with a shopping list including an ultrasonic speed sensor, solid state compass, ultrasonic mast weather station, and upgrade from 2kw to 4kw Raymarine Radar, but in the end only purchased the ultrasonic speed sensor, as I couldn't get satisfactory answers to integration questions or assurances of compatibility (compass or weather on N2K to Raymarine), and in the case of the Radar and weather sensor, required a whole new wire run up my mast that could have been avoided if the industry proceeded faster between 2000-2006 around signaling and cable standards that were more universal.

The result is that the current standards and products in the marine electronics industry today (my boat is only 1 year old) caused me to spend only 15% of my original 2007 budget for upgrades to my boat.

... of the four products the only product to make it on my sailboat this year was the Airmar ultrasonic speed sensor, which could plug right into the wiring of the Raymarine component it replaced with the addition of a 12vdc power run.

Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 12:32 PM

NMEA 2000 is the light. Lead us from darkness. We need more products, more compatibility, more innovation. That means the barrier to entry should be carefully calibrated for maximum inclusion, while still maintaining reasonably high standards.

Posted by: Madmariner [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 18, 2007 2:19 PM

b393capt; corrections for mast movement due to wave action and roll are catered for by Brookes and Gatehouse. It will cost you though!

Posted by: lyvet at October 18, 2007 3:00 PM

I have sent few requests in this regard to NMEA. I can understand how costly is to develop and maintain such standards, but having the proper pricing (maybe tiered pricing depending on sales volume) will let small companies to enter the VIP room of NMEA 2k.

NMEA 2k is based on CAN bus, same as the one used in automotive industry and manufacturing processes, it is amazing that buying a chip (ELM chip) to talk CAN with multiple ISO protocols (automotive) for $27. Now imagine how many "gateways" exists for these protocols?

Posted by: Javier at October 18, 2007 4:19 PM

From an installer stand point interest is definitely building. Installing a back bone in a new boat is a pretty easy sale and from there putting an instrument system and sensors in really isn't any more expensive (often less) than any of the previous systems. The limitation so far has been the variety of product out there. It's nice to see that Furuno is finally getting involved though where are the color LCD's? These things look 10 years old.

Posted by: ysnw at October 18, 2007 4:22 PM

Can someone please leak (PDF, scan or photocopy) the protocol documentation and physical interface specs to the hacking community? I'm amazed that nobody has by now. I want to see these materials on bittorrent and for innovative open source projects to start appearing on random eastern European websites. Engineers at Furuno and Garmin are also encouraged to leak details regarding their IP protocols so that we can integrate radar overlays into our projects. Thanks!

Posted by: Aaron at October 18, 2007 10:31 PM

This last post was a surprise to read.

Does beg the question, what happens to the NMEA revenue model when their documentation appears on the internet someday !

Posted by: b393capt [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 19, 2007 6:36 AM

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