iKommunicate from Digital Yacht, Signal K gets kickstarted

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Oct 26, 2015

iKommunicate Signal K proof of concept aPanbo.jpgSorry for the fuzzy photo, but it makes sense as the iKommunicate Signal K Gateway isn't a real product yet, and the real product may look quite different from the "Proof of Concept" prototype above if it actually materializes early next year. Why so vague? What's happening here is a techy chicken and egg thing. Digital Yacht was understandably hesitant about developing a gateway for Signal K apps and services that hardly exist yet, but the Signal K universal boat data concept -- open source, entirely free, and created by unfunded volunteers -- needs a commercial level NMEA gateway so that third party developers can easily show us what the potential apps and services can do. That's my understanding of why DY launched the iKommunicate Kickstarter campaign and also why I'm hoping that fellow boat geeks and related companies will join me in backing the project and thus helping Signal K become real...

iKommunicate_Kickstarter_page_cPanbo.jpgActually, it's very likely that the iKommunicate Gateway crowdfunding campaign will reach its $20,000 goal, as it's already more than 25% there after just three days and little publicity. In fact, I think that Digital Yacht set the goal low and the campaign period long because the company is already committed to making the gateway happen. The idea of using Kickstarter is not just to hedge gateway sales against the uncertain commercial future of Signal K, but also to build a community of enthusiastic kibbitzers toward that future. And note that backers of product projects like this aren't exactly philanthropic; most of us are buying something that hasn't been fully developed yet so we can get early delivery at a discount, plus a little say in how it's developed or at least the right to claim "early investor" status (if and when that's something to be proud of ;-).

iKommunicate is the ninth Kickstarter project I've backed -- and I just signed on to the interesting Hello Ocean campaign on Indiegogo -- so I know something about how effective and enjoyable this new form of fundraising (and/or sales) can be. For instance, I enthusiastically followed the original Pebble watch Kickstarter as it raised nearly 11 million dollars from almost 70,000 backers, and then I became an evangelist for the actual resulting Pebble that had been so well developed and manufactured with all that backing. And while Pebble certainly did not need Kickstarter to develop the new Pebble Time, I was one of the many repeat backers to join the Kickstarter fun and now I'm much enjoying the second watch I got early and discounted.

iKommunicate_Gateway_system_diagram_aPanbo.jpgThere are crowdfunded product projects that produce crappy results or never deliver at all, but the danger with iKommunicate is more that Signal K doesn't work well and/or isn't used by many developers to create useful apps and services. That's why DY plans to make the iKommunicate Gateway capable of outputting NMEA 2000 and 0183 data through your boat router in the same way that boat data hotspots like the Navico GoFree, the Vesper XB8000, the Brookhouse iMux and others do. This means that early iKommunicate users should be able to get basic boat data like GPS, Wind, Depth, and AIS to apps like iNavX, iRegatta, and others (like I did last summer with the TimeZero V2 app) regardless of SK.

iKommunicate_Signal_K_gateway_prototype_aPanbo.jpg

But I think that Signal K will really happen - and perhaps spectacularly. Besides from the iKommunicate Kickstarter and the Signal K site, you can learn more about the concept from my May entry about the friendly new NMEA SK relationship and from Bill Bishop's recent musings about how SK actually fit in at the NMEA Conference. I heard concerns about Signal K data security routines that need definition, and the number of N2K PGN's that still need to be translated into SK syntax by volunteers who have day jobs, but it's terrific that this ambitious open source idea is now in the same room with the major and minor makers of marine electronics and software. And at least some of them are interested, as I'll relate below.

First I want to describe my hurried though eye-opening experience with a Signal K demo given by Digital Yacht CEO Nick Heyes (who was a NMEA new guy in 2008). What you're seeing in the photo above is dummy vessel Maverick's NMEA 2000 data being gatewayed by the prototype iKommunicate and WiFi'd to an app which is turning the SK info into an instrument and mapping display. While you could say, "So what?" because this is already fairly easy to do, the missing image would show the iKommunicate SK screen where the boat user can enter a boat name like "Maverick" and a raft of other information that currently has no place to live in NMEA data standards. So Signal K adds a rich data layer to regular NMEA 0183 and 2000 (which it also translates better), and all of it can be available to app developers as you see fit.

ActiveCaptain_Locations_w_Signal_K_cPanbo.jpgThe ActiveCaptain app Locations is one of the first to support Signal K and a good example of why. Locations has been around for a while, and in order to fully identify nearby AC users or special friends it needs both profile info from eBoatCards and current location data preferably from somewhere else. I use a link between eBoatCards and my test inReach Explorer, which AC makes easy, but many eBoatCarders just input their location manually, which is why my friends on the S/V Makana aren't really moored in Camden today like they were last June. Now Locations 1.2 can get GPS info from "0183 info over IP" WiFi sources like the ones I mentioned above, but better yet, I'll bet users with an SK connection will soon be able to share info like what anchorage they're headed to or even the route. What's more, Signal K means that other developers can create something like Locations without having to build something like eBoatCards first.

At any rate, AC's Jeff Siegel was enthusiastically present at the NMEA Conference, and I suspect that iKommunicate will receive some AC love soon. Also present and grinning was Luis Soltero of RedPort and GMN, who has embraced Signal K too. He envisions how the richer, more app friendly SK protocol can help make boat data more useful over the narrow band satellite communications he specializes in. I've hacked up his diagram to fit the space below, but here's a tangible example: Picture an AIS man overboard device alarming not just the MFD system on your boat but also auto sending a report ashore using a modest device like an Iridium Go!

Not much is concrete yet, but it's encouraging to see serious marine developers like Digital Yacht, Siegel and Soltero at least tentatively get behind the already impressive Signal K crew. That's why I'm backing iKommunicate and maybe you should consider it?

RedPort_Signal_K_aggregation_aPanbo.jpg

Comments

Great,

Can't wait to use it on my sunlight readable Idevice

Posted by: Hendrik at October 26, 2015 5:31 PM | Reply

Cool, the iKommunicate Kickstarter campaign just passed the 50% mark. But note that it won't end when the funding goal is achieved. In fact, still left are 59 of the least expensive, earliest shipping gateways.

PS. Hendrik, I'm with you in appreciating dedicated marine multifunction displays, but I do think that Signal K may encourage more 2nd tier high bright displays because it can much more than just repeating NMEA 2K and 0183 data.

Posted by: Ben at October 26, 2015 8:20 PM | Reply

I am in, this is a no brainer.

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at October 27, 2015 12:05 AM | Reply

Great, just got a new boat so I hope to be able to test it next sailing season!

Posted by: Yme Bosma at October 27, 2015 4:14 AM | Reply

Posted by: Bill Bishop at October 27, 2015 6:16 AM | Reply

I'm in and hopefully this will have some legs ... finally an open marine data exchange format.

If SK does gain traction, I hope a certification program is intended.

Posted by: Sparky at October 27, 2015 4:35 PM | Reply

Sounds like the iKommunicate Gateway allows you to keep the “old antiquated” NMEA 2000 network and still move ahead with Signal K apps. Do I have that right? I just spent a lot of money upgrading and replacing all the mismatched drop cables and “T’s” with new high quality equipment on my network.

I’m looking forward to hearing more about Signal K.

Posted by: Richard C at October 27, 2015 8:46 PM | Reply

Holy Cow! ActiveCaptain showed the Signal K love...

https://activecaptain.com/newsletters/2015-10-28.php

...and now the iKommunicate project has exceeded its goal 3X with nearly 300 backers. There could well be over 500 before the Kickstarter campaign ends, and that means there will be a significant SK test group when the iKommunicate gateways start shipping next year.

I imagine that this success is very encouraging and motivating for the volunteer Signal K development team, the Digital Yacht team, and the various developers like AC who are intend on making SK do great things for us. All good!

PS Richard, SK is definitely designed to work with NMEA 2000 (and 0183). In fact, I believe it will make your new network more valuable by making all your NMEA data easier to access with mobile and Internet technology plus allowing you and/or apps to add data not available in NMEA standards.

Posted by: Ben at October 28, 2015 11:36 AM | Reply

Reading through the use cases, a suggestion for sailing ... How about an application that takes boat information combined with boat performance information, allows the user to specify which sails they are current using, and pipe back into the boat a speed in knots for target boat speed that could be brought up on an instrument display that may only know how to display boat speed ... but by selecting a boat speed source, meet the needs of communicate to the boat owner they are falling short or coming close to the potential of their boat as they make each sail trim adjustment. This would be a good example of the 2-way capability of signal K.

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at October 29, 2015 12:44 PM | Reply

That's a cool idea for an app you have there, Dan! Why don't you suggest this on https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/signalk

Posted by: Kees at October 30, 2015 4:04 AM | Reply

I would love to see an auto-polars iPad/android app that would display the polar graph and plot the boat position on it. This could integrate the theoretical polars for your boat class, real "this boat" polars as well as current boat performance. Since a huge amount of data can be logged in 4GB, and even more in the SD card, there is no reason to discard instrument data for the entire sailing season...

Posted by: Jason Taylor at October 30, 2015 10:26 AM | Reply

I imagine the unit will use their new packaging and look like the AIT2000 (http://www.digitalyachtamerica.com/index.php/en/products/ais-systems/ais-transponders/product/32-ait2000-class-b-transponder)... at least I hope it does, this is a very nice case.

I am looking forward to testing this unit.

Jason, you could always write the app that you want... or at least suggest it in detail on the above mentioned link by Kees.

Posted by: Chris Ellingsen at October 30, 2015 12:09 PM | Reply

400 backers and climbing. Already far exceeded the goal for funding. Impressive.

This seems a pretty strong statement that the user base wants an open data exchange format.

Posted by: Sparky at November 6, 2015 9:53 AM | Reply

Lots more iKommunicate gateways still available at $70 off retail price, but Kickstarter campaign ends on Dec. 15

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1689846268/ikommunicate-gateway-enabling-the-internet-of-thin

Posted by: Ben at December 12, 2015 11:03 AM | Reply

Congratulations to DigitalYacht for a successful Kickstarter! I'm looking forward to trying out my device!

Posted by: Graham Collins at December 16, 2015 9:23 AM | Reply

Very cool! A smart (and funny) guy named Adam Hyde has started a blog about Signal K and already he can't help but write about other neat marine tech:

http://www.signalkool.com/

Posted by: Ben at February 19, 2016 8:17 AM | Reply

vyacht released new firmware at the end of January implementing a Signal K server on the vyacht router so when iKommunictae is delivered we'll have at least two commercial Signal K options. 2016 might be a very good year for Signal K.
http://stripydog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/vyacht-router-now-with-signal-k.html
http://vyacht.net

Posted by: Keith at February 24, 2016 5:11 AM | Reply

Hi Keith,

I appreciate your enthusiasm but I just heard about vYacht and I feel a little skeptical about the claims being made.

"The {vYacht} NMEA 2000 Gateway will translate all known NMEA 2000 sentences to NMEA 0183" jumps out at me, for instance. There are many known N2K PGN's that have no corresponding NMEA 0183 message so that statement seems doubtful.

Moreover, I'm not sure that any developer should be making an N2K gateway unless they are at least a member of NMEA and hopefully willing and able to get the gateway certified. vYacht doesn't seem to even be a member. (I guess it's ethically OK to use N2K if you reverse engineer it, but that's a whole lot of work that I doubt vYacht did on its own.)

Also, I first heard of vYacht from a Panbo reader complaining about a lack of technical support:

http://www.panbo.com/forum/2016/02/vyacht-wifi-help.html

I'd be happy to learn different, but as it stands I don't see how vYacht compares to iKommunicate, where a known team of NMEA experienced developers are working with the Signal K team to make all of NMEA 2000 accessible via SK coming out of a certified gateway.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Keith at February 24, 2016 7:29 AM | Reply

Ben,

For clarity, I'm not personally connected with vyacht but was interested in the product which seems to have positive reviews from people on cruisersforum and the ybw forums: Like others I've been following Signal K development and talking to some of the people developing products about their offerings and more specifically their views on Signal K. In the first link above you'll see that I asked vyacht about NMEA certification and you're right: public / reverse engineered documentation has been used, but then that's the case for the majority of mobile marine data apps available today as well as a few hardware multiplexers (though not obviously those from actisense/digital yacht/shipmodul who are all NMEA members).

"Grotty Yachty"'s problem which he also posted on cruisersforum is the only negative I've seen about vyacht, and that's not actually a fault with the product: it's an unrelated networking issue.

It'd be interesting to hear the experiences of other pan readers who've purchased a vyacht.

Posted by: Keith at February 24, 2016 8:56 AM | Reply

Thanks, Keith. I admit to not having read your interview with "Bernd from vYacht" thoroughly but now I have. Nicely done!

I think that Bernd is confused about proprietary standards, conflating open standards (available to any company) with open and free standards (that are generally financed by public institutions and/or very large corporations). NMEA 0183 and 2000 are open standards, but not free, and the same is true of many similar industrial standards, especially CANbus based.

He's right that a fair number of NMEA 2000 devices from larger marine electronics companies are not yet certified (which is odd), but those companies all contribute to the NMEA standards-making process with volunteered employee time on committees, corporate membership fees, advertising in the Marine Electronics Journal, etc.

And, incidentally, don't the margins on retail marine electronics have to include those sorts of expenses, as well as the high cost of technical support? I still think that vYacht and iKommunicate are apples and oranges.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Keith at February 24, 2016 9:35 AM | Reply

Thanks Ben

I don't think there's confusion about "open" vs. "free" there. Neither NMEA-0183 nor N2K are "open": NMEA-0183 has been widely publicised, to a large extent by gpsd author and open source advocate Eric Raymond, but it's still a "closed" protocol and its use in OpenCPN, the reference Signal K servers and many commercial marine apps where the authors haven't purchased the official standard is still regarded (as I understand it: correct me if I'm wrong) as dubious. "free" is of course a nuanced word and for those who get passionate about the subject (as I'm sure you've seen happen), "free-as-in-speech" is the important angle rather than "free-as-in-beer".

Personally I see the value of a controlled whole-stack standard and certification process where safety and reliability are primary concerns. I also see how open standards stimulate innovation and give people the freedom to tailor their environment to their needs. It's nice that we now have choices with Signal K, with options from the DIY of the reference servers to the NMEA-certified iKommunicate, options which can be chosen between according to technical ability, depth of pockets, software freedom concerns or the security of backup from an established and well-known company. It's a shame we don't have to-the-transducer open networking options yet but it'll be interesting to see if anything falls out of the current IoT bunfights that will be relevant in our marine world.

Posted by: Keith at February 24, 2016 11:44 AM | Reply

Well, at least we agree that using an open standard without also honoring attached documentation or licensing fees is a dubious practice ;-)

Seriously, I don't think it takes much research to determine that proprietary, open, open and free, and open source are all distinctly different ways of establishing standards and that there are many valid examples of each. CANbus and its many higher level implementations is a great place to start:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CAN_bus

Seatalk is a proprietary standard (though "closed" seems to be the term you're using now and I'm not sure Raymarine cares any more). NMEA 0183 is an open standard with documentation fees (but not licensing fees), NMEA 2000 is the same plus certification requirements, and Signal K is open source. I believe that USB and Bluetooth are examples of open and free standards we use around boats.

Of course open and free is great when possible, and open source seems the ultimate in innovative possibilities, but I also care a lot about accurate terminology, which in this case has nothing to do with free speech or beer.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Keith at February 24, 2016 3:32 PM | Reply

The term "open standard" is defined differently by different bodies and many of those definitions, including the legal definitions in some countries would not include standards like NMEA-0183 which are not available to read without payment of a fee.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_standard
I believe that the NMEA deem use of their standards by those that have purchased them in open source software to be unacceptable as it constitutes "reproduction", but I have been unable to get a reply on this from their legal department (any up-to-date info on that appreciated)

Other definitions of "open standard" do include standards available to all on payment of a fee and with restrictions on use.

This is in no way a criticism of the NMEA's business model or an attempt to make any value judgements of what kind of model is "better", I'm simply arguing that the term "open" is subject to cultural variation. NMEA protocols might be classed as "open standards" in the electronics engineering world, but you might not find many software engineers who would describe them as such. We're in interesting times where those two worlds are coming together...

Posted by: Keith at February 24, 2016 5:00 PM | Reply

The problem with lumping together "Open" with "Open and Free" seems obvious to me. It also lumps together "Proprietary" -- a standard that no one can use unless allowed to by a certain company or institution -- with "Open" to anyone though including reasonable fees needed to maintain and grow the standard.

I don't think I'm biased about this either, except toward Free and Open Source as previously stated, but I suspect that fudging what seem like meaningful and useful categories by some bodies and nations smacks of motive.

Some of the Panbo readership and I have been at this rodeo before...

http://www.panbo.com/archives/2012/03/the_n2k_wifi_gateway_issue_is_nmea_stifling_innovation.html

...and it may be time for me to move on. The good news is that NMEA fees have gone down since then and, maybe more important, the gap between NMEA standards and the open source world seems about to be properly bridged with Signal K. Maybe you should ask the SK team what they think about the ethical issues?

Posted by: Ben in reply to Keith at February 24, 2016 6:01 PM | Reply

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