Panbo

AMEC NK-80 0183/N2K adaptor, and Milltech's 7th year of AIS

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Aug 13, 2012
AMEC_NK-80_NMEA_0183_2000_adaptor.jpg

It looks like Actisense has some serious competition when it comes to translating data back forth from NMEA 0183 to NMEA 2000. And while that's not a sexy marine electronics topic, it's an important one as many boats use a changing mix of the two protocols. The AMEC NK-80 adaptor above was recently NMEA 2000 certified and it seems quite able. If you go to the NK-80 page of Milltech Marine -- which helped develop the product and distributes it in the U.S. -- you can download the manual and thus check out the nitty-gritty of specific data fields translated. What I notice is that the NK-80 seems to cover every AIS PGN and lots more, which seems to be a problem for the otherwise able Actisense NGW-1 series of adaptors...

Actisense offers an NGT-1 that translates lots of 0183 messages but not AIS or one that does AIS but only a more limited set of other messages. I'm guessing that this is due to processor limitations as AIS at 38,400 bps can be quite a data load, but it seems like AMEC's newer design has more horsepower. {I guessed wrong; see my long comment below, which includes Actisense's explanation of why the NGT-1 comes in different models.}  Between the NK-80 manual and Actisense's downloadable conversion lists you can see the differences and hopefully know which product will serve your needs. Actisense is a great company in my experience but isn't competition in niches like this a good thing?
   Learning about the NK-80 was also a chance to chat with Milltech's Doug Miller, who tells me that "the more I play with this unit, the more scenarios that pop up. Initially we were looking at this as a way to get NMEA 0183 data from an AIS transponder or receiver to a NMEA 2000 network. But of course any 0183 device can work. Then since it is bi-directional, it works as well as a way to get NMEA 2000 network data to another NMEA 0183 device or to a serial device such as a PC. Coupling this device with our NMEA RS422 USB Breakout Cable gives the user an easy way to get NMEA 2000 data to a PC nav program. Or by coupling it with our new Comar NMEA-2-WIFI NMEA to WIFI Converter you can take NMEA2000 data and pump it out via WiFi to another device such as an iPad running iNavX..."
   Doug also told me that his company is in it's 7th year as an AIS specialty shop -- time flies! -- and that last year the balance tipped from receivers to transponders. "We're seeing AIS moving more into a mainstream 'must have' solution as opposed to the early adopter 'nice to have' category where it was for several years," he wrote, which is certainly what I'm seeing on Penobscot Bay this summer. Plus there's a "real uptick in iPad interest" -- no surprise here -- and hence lots of interest in that Comar NMEA-2-WiFi box. He reports that the Standard Horizon Matrix AIS+ receiver (which is also a very good VHF radio. I think) is still a popular product but what he calls a "killer" is the AMEC Camino-101 Class B transponder, which only costs $449 and can be accessorized with a rugged looking "silent mode" and SRM control. Still, though, if you want AIS over NMEA 2000, the Em-Trak B100 (recently tested on Panbo) looks like a better deal than the combo of AMEC's Camino plus NK-80. But isn't competition in value-oriented Class B AIS a good thing too?

AMEC_Camino-101.jpg

Comments

Amec - Very cool product line from a company I hadn't even heard of. Nice work Ben.

We've been going exclusively with Actisense products for the past two years, even going so far as to using their NMEA2000 Tees and cables. You can actually disconnect a drop or backbone without having to unscrew the Tee from the wall. What we've used for AIS to N2K, has been utilizing the NDC-4-USB multiplexer, which takes four 0183 inputs, outputs at 38,400 on the USB and standard 0183 leads, and connecting the USB to a TimeZero platform, MaxSea/Nobeltec, and hard wiring the other iso out to the NGT-1 which has worked great. In situations where a PC isn't involved, the NDC-4-AIS has dual outputs which can be separated to output 4,800 to say a VHF for position on a VHF and AIS at 38,400 to a Matrix2000 and an MFD network that bridges the data to NMEA2000. So far we've had no problems, very clean installation. Will definitely give the NK80 a shot.

And Ben, yes, your postings may tend to glorify and favor AIS related topics, and have been since the ShineMicro days, and I have to say you have had a major influence on the industry and boating public to make AIS such an important navigational aid for the Class B crowd. Thanks for all the support. There are few people now who I need to explain what AIS is to these days.

Posted by: Labozza at August 14, 2012 7:04 AM | Reply

Thanks, Labozza! If you get a chance, check the translation lists for these various adaptors. For instance, it looks to me like the NK-80 can get full AIS from 0183 to N2K along with some less common 0183 values like rudder angle, a job that would take two different NGT-1 models I think.

An important thing for folks to realize is that translating data back and forth from 0183 to 2000 is not trivial. Don't presume anything; instead check the translation lists! BTW, I like the Actisense tees and cables too, and the new power drops look excellent: http://goo.gl/22K5m

Posted by: Ben in reply to Labozza at August 14, 2012 7:57 AM | Reply

I have tried to update the firmware on the NGW-1 and found it impossible. I understand from Actisense that their NMEA Reader will eventually allow firmware updates using NMEA Reader from the N2K side, but this new version is still in the works. In fact, it has been in the works forever and I have lost faith in Actisense ever making the firmware easy to update in the NGW-1.

I hope AMEC has thought about this and allowed a way to easily update future PGN's that can be converted by the NK-80.

Posted by: Richard C at August 14, 2012 10:35 AM | Reply

Richard,

Just spoke with Peter at Gemeco, which is the master distributor and service center for Actisense here in the US, and he would like you to give a call to the company @ 803-693-0777. They will walk you through the firmware upgrade, and if there is any problem they will replace it free of charge. You could also just send it in, they do firmware updates all the time, especially with the rapid upgrades coming from Active Research Ltd. (ActiSense).

Like I said above, I've had nothing but great experience with every single Actisense gateway, converter, and drivers. I think their configuration software is very intuitive, and let's me and my other techs really keep 0183 and NMEA2000 networks maintained properly and keeping the bus load as low as possible allowing as much bandwidth as possible. I'd hate for you to be turned off, and feel terrible for the frustration. As Ben knows, I have no vested interest or sponsorships from any company, in fact I often go over the line when criticizing various products and factories. I just hate to see someone suffer unnecessarily. Give Gemeco a call, they will take care of you. Great company. Good luck.

Posted by: Labozza at August 14, 2012 11:12 AM | Reply

I guessed wrong about Actisense NGW processor limitations! Explanation here from Andy Campbell, Actisense Chief Engineer :

"The misconception surrounds the subject of 'processor limitation' – the very powerful 32-bit ARM microcontroller we use in the NGW-1 (and NGT-1) has plenty of “horsepower” left that is untapped. In fact, we have successfully proven that our NGT-1 can transfer every single CAN message on a 95-100% loaded network during NMEA PlugFests events without even approaching its limit.

Instead, the “limitations” in the NGW-1 conversion list are twofold:

1. Due to the standard output NMEA 0183 baud rate of 4800, output bandwidth is real problem. If all possible conversions were enabled, the NMEA 0183 output would totally overloaded (or the repetition rate of each sentence would be very slow), therefore until we can offer the NGW-1 user configuration tool to select only the conversions that the individual installation requires, we have had to limit the standard translations accordingly.

The NGW-1 would be capable of outputting a much larger conversion list if the output NMEA 0183 output baud rate was increased to 38400 or above. Interestingly, no customer has asked for this yet.

2. After discussions with the NMEA, we concluded that having a single NMEA 2000 device outputting a wide, confusing collection of disparate PGNs (converted from a combined NMEA 0183 stream) can be confusing when see from an NMEA 2000 device’s point-of-view, so we suggest to our customers that it is far better to use multiple NGW-1’s (dispersed locally to the devices they are connected to) rather than use a multiplexer followed by an NGW-1.

With this in mind, we deliberately created a separate AIS firmware for the NGW-1 that allowed the NGW-1 baud rate to be automatically changed from 4800 to 38400 baud and the conversion list to be tweaked accordingly. We felt (and still do) that a user who connected their NGW-1 to an AIS unit would not require anything other than GPS and AIS conversions – and we have not received any feedback to say that assumption was wrong.

Therefore, these “limitations” are in fact conscious decisions to try and make things easier for the user.

Posted by: Ben at August 14, 2012 1:09 PM | Reply

Looks like the Actisense product is galvanically isolated whereas the Amec one is not.

Posted by: Brian Engle at August 14, 2012 3:11 PM | Reply

I think this is one of those examples of the technical specs only telling half of the story. On paper the Amec product looks good but with interfacing it is the "in the field" experience that manufacturers gain over years of tech support calls and fine tuning of the design that add the value to a product.

The Actisense NGW-1 and more importantly the NGT-1 are mature and well established products that have had their "rough edges" well and truly worn down over the years and this is why customers like them - they "just work" and make complex and difficult interfacing jobs easy.

Application developers like the NGW-1 because they can use their existing NMEA0183 code to read the most common navigational data from an NMEA2000 network. Those developers that want to go one step further and support all PGNs can use the Actisense SDK to make the complex job of natively supporting NMEA2000 so much easier than writing everything from scratch.

There is a lot more to the Actisense products than a spec sheet can show and only the success of real life installations will prove if the Amec unit is a worthy competitor to Actisense, but the question is whether dealers will have the time or inclination to put this new product to the test.

Posted by: sumps.myopenid.com at August 14, 2012 7:09 PM | Reply

Timely! Today's ActiveCaptain newsletter contains a great deal on one of the SRT family of new generation Class B AIS transponders (like Em-Trak B100 and Raymarine 650). The joint deal between AC and Defender will get you a Si-Tex Metadata Class B for $486:

https://activecaptain.com/newsletters/2012-08-15.php

If you do take advantage of this offer, I think the right thing to do is to join ActiveCaptain and subscribe to their newsletter (there have been other very good Defender deals too).

But do note that there may be a problem with the USB output of this SRT design. Emphasis on "may". I'm having issues with both the Em-Trak and Ray 650 dropping the USB connection, but am working with SRT to troubleshoot and it may local to M/V Gizmo. Meanwhile, the NMEA 2000 output works fine and I imagine regular 0183 output works fine too.

Posted by: Ben at August 15, 2012 2:26 PM | Reply

Regarding the SRT model Class B units and 0183, beware when attempting to use the 4,800 baud rate leads to provide position to a VHF. According to the manual, it multiplexes the data within to provide both 4,800 and 38,400 feeds, with GGA/GLL coming through the low speed, and AIS data coming through on high. AIS outputs, but the 4,800 won't output the data sentences, and this has been tested with multiple radios, including the Ray218. Particularly frustrating when using a Standard GX2000 Matrix, which accepts AIS input but does not have a built in receiver, as it needs position at 4,800 and 38,400 feeding the AIS data to two separate ports, and it took 3 AIS650's to prove it wasn't a fluke.

We almost exclusively use the GX2000 when installing any Class B AIS unit, as it provides a virtual intercom using the received data, but the interfacing requires data at both speeds. Usually not a problem, as an NDC-4 from Actisense is normally added to the system, but the SRT model left me angry. I hate it when a manual lies to me. If someone here has had a different or similar result, please share.

Posted by: Labozza in reply to Ben at August 15, 2012 6:38 PM | Reply

Hi Labozza - I'm sure we can help resolve your problem with multiplex of GPS data from Class B units. Please get in touch via enquiries@srt-marine.com (advising the specific product you have) and we'll run through the set up.

Posted by: SRT Support in reply to Labozza at August 16, 2012 4:01 AM | Reply

I came accross the same problem with the GX2000 but with a different AIS class B transceiver, the Weatherdock easy TRX2, but unlike you I was angry about the SH radio that does not use GGA/GLL sentences coming through on the high speed port on the radio.
I'm just saying that the problem could be fixed from that end, too.

Posted by: Henning in reply to Labozza at August 17, 2012 9:08 AM | Reply

Hi Labozza,
This issue with the SRT Class B can definitely be resolved as we pre-configure the modules in all our AIT2000 units during final assembly and test, to have the GPS sentences coming out at 4800 on the second NMEA0183 port.
This driving of the DSC radio was the most common customer request we had on our original AIT1000, so it was an obvious feature for us to offer on our AIT2000, but I don't think all SRT OEMs set them up in this way.

Posted by: sumps.myopenid.com in reply to Labozza at August 19, 2012 4:41 PM | Reply

Replies to Richard and Brian from AMEC support:

"Hi Richard,
Presently, NK-80 can support PGN upgrade through firmware upgrade.
Our development team is looking into other alternative way to make firmware update enjoyable experience. We thank you for pointing it out.

Hi Brian,
NK-80 is actually already galvanically isolated. Thank you for reminding us. We will point it out in the NK-80 manual and its webpage."

Posted by: Ben at August 20, 2012 6:31 AM | Reply

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