The May issue of BoatUS magazine has this “Action Alert”:
With no warning to users, the U.S. Coast Guard has proposed termination of the Loran system by requesting zero budget for Loran in its FY 07 budget request sent to Congress. This surprising development came with no stakeholders’ input and after the Coast Guard spent $160 million modernizing the Loran system, an improvement in signal strength, maintenance and coverage that is nearly complete.
Surprise, indeed! For years I’ve been telling folks that an improved Loran will return as a back-up to GPS. What gives? Well, I take solace in the rosy report currently on the opening page of the International Loran Association, well worth a read even if it predates the USCG announcement. According to the author—the inimitable and very credible Langhorne Bond, who I once interviewed for an article about GPS vunerability—Loran has proven itself the perfect complement to the satellite system for marine and aero navigation, not to mention precision timing (for power plants and much more). But he does note that fair allocation of the operating costs is an issue:
The Coast Guard pays the full operating costs and feels this is inequitable due to the future multi-model uses of LORAN.The Coast Guard is dead right, although the inter-agency discussion of this is likely to be gritty.
Gritty? Ah ha! I’m hoping that the CG budget surprise is not really about killing Loran, but about forcing other agencies to help pay for it. Still, we should all play our part. I’m taking BoatUS’s advice to write my congress people, only I’m adding a line about sharing the costs/giving the CG a break. I also plan to test the loaner eLoran I’ve been neglecting.
By the way, the picture, flushed out by Google images, is a Loran station on Attu in 1945. There’s even a bit of its history online. The USCG has been at this for some time.
On April 25th Brunswick formally promoted David Ritblatt from general manager to president of BNTME , and then two days later announced that BNT was for sale! How much did Ritblatt know and when did he know it? Why is Brunswick selling? Ritblatt responds to this general line of enquiry with some joking about being “in the dark” himself. I’m not sure about that, but I do see his point that as long as BNTME is healthy things are going to work out. Here are more aphorism-sprinkled points he made in our conversation last Friday:
* He stands by his MEJ predictions about developing an even closer relationship with Brunswick boat builders, “The planned sale of BNT Marine Electronics will not impact Brunswick’s strategy to integrate marine electronics. It is not necessary to manufacture Northstar and Navman products to integrate them into Brunswick boats.” Or: “You don’t need to own the cow to get a nice glass of milk.”
* He noted that BNTME just had its best month ever, including a 40% sales increase, and says he’s ‘honored’ by the many ‘interesting’ companies considering an acquisition. “They wouldn’t be hunting like this if the meat wasn’t tasty.”
* He did acknowledge a rumor I’d heard about delays in delivery of Northstar’s new 6100i series, but says they will be here this month (May), and that the 8000i will be delivered on schedule in June. The 6100i, incidently, is a juiced up version of the 6000i with support of Navionics Platinum charts and the new radar scanners which also work with the 8000i, and will eventually work (October) with the Navman 8120. The delay, he said, was logistical as manufacturing moved from Acton, Massachusetts to Auckland, New Zealand, which also resulted in price reductions. (There’s a sad aspect to that move, too, which I noted in my March column about BNTME, Ritblatt, and the 8000i—a column I just happily discovered is posted as a PDF at Northstar’s site).
* Ritblatt also noted that BNTME has a 100 engineers working on marine electronics products and what he thinks is the highest rate (% sales) of R&D investment in the industry. Finally, he gave me an impressive but off-the-record preview of products under development. There was an aphorism involved, but I’ve been asked not to repeat that either! Overall I’d say that while Ritblatt’s enthusiasm is no doubt part of his job description, his confidence in the future is pretty darn convincing.
Today I did talk with David Ritblatt, president of Brunswick New Technologies Marine Electronics (BNTME). While he delivered no scoops about the future corporate home of Northstar/Navman/MX Marine, he was quite persuasive about how healthy his division is…and he was funny. But the details of all that will have to wait until Monday. Today I’ll just kid him a bit about his just published interview in Marine Electronics Journal (the NMEA trade publication pictured above). You see his predictions about the future of marine electronics might seem almost as faulty as mine in light of Brunswick’s decision to sell its marine electronics assets. For instance, right at the beginning of the interview he says, “We [Brunswick] are integrating engines—Cummins-MercCruiser—so the next step obviously is to integrate electronics…We work with them [Brunswick boat builders] to integrate our electronics better in the dashboard.” Then later, talking about the concerns of electronics dealers, “They see what Brunswick is doing. They see Raymarine is hooking up with Volvo or Yamaha. They see Simrad is buying Lowrance. I call it ‘polarization’. Camps are starting to be formed.” That’s sort of what I was thinking too, at least until last week. In fact, Ritblatt stands by his predictions and still thinks that his electronics will be closely integrated into Brunswick boats (and other builders too). More on Monday, including the humor.
Well, I’ll be damned! The very unexpected news is that Brunswick now plans to sell much of Brunswick New Technologies, specifically the marine electronics bundle of Northstar, Navman and MX Marine plus Navman’s non-marine operations. This plan seemingly torpedos my notion that electronics, engine, and boat builders must follow the Brunswick lead and become closely intertwined as all their products become more integrated. What don’t I understand about this picture?
Later today: Of course I’ve called a few folks in the industry; in this little world, Brunswick’s announcement is a big deal, and, it turns out, anticipated by no one I know. You’d think that Raymarine and Maptech might be celebrating; I believe they’ve both been living in fear of losing substantial business if and when Brunswick boatbuilders standardised their helms on Brunswick electronics. But there are way too many uncertainties to this deal. For starters, it’s odd that Brunswick has only announced a desire to sell Navman/Northstar, not the buyer. Some players are fearful that that buyer will be Garmin, others that it will be Raymarine. Or maybe it’s a red herring, and only Navman’s non-marine business will actually get sold (which makes plenty of sense).
As for me, it’s too bad that my recent PMY electronics columns aren’t online (it’s a manpower issue, and I’m told they’ll all go up eventually), because then I could illustrate my embarrassing bafflement with a couple of links. The main one would be my March column about the Northstar 8000i, where I described how it’s taken a few years for Brunswick to digest Northstar and Navman, how these names—now really two brands used by the same global team of developer/manufacturers—have to compete for business within Brunswick as well as without, and, finally, how the 8000i looks like the system that might realize former (good point, Russ, below) Brunswick CEO George Buckley’s vision of a totally integrated boat, and thus win BNT a big chunk of Brunswick business. I’d also have to link you to the current May issue of PMY, where I take a look at Lowrance and wonder if its acquisition by Altor, along with Simrad and a boatbuilder closely associated with Volvo, might be the beginning of a Nordic version of Brunswick. Oy, I even finished with some noodling about “how Brunswick’s electronics and engine divisions are coming together in a seamless, possibly impenetrable, fashion…” May I hereby add: Or not!
Volvo also introduced an omni-directional no-thruster-needed joystick at the Miami Boat Show. It has a computerised control module running a pair of independently turning IPS drives, like Zeus, but doesn’t have Zeus’s nervous system. That’s me trying it above, and while it just can’t have the precision of Zeus without the feedback, it too is a big advance in easy boat handling (plus it’s available right now). So, looking forward, we see two major marine engine manufacturers with new drive systems that offer significantly easier handling (and some other features) and are very electronic.
If I was an independent electronics manufacturer I’d be nervous. The Brunswick team—Mercury, Cummins, Northstar, and Navman—are already a little ahead in terms of the relatively simple business of putting engine data onto a CANbus (SmartCraft) so it’s available at all displays. I know companies like Lowrance and Raymarine are trying to get this sort of engine relationship using NMEA 2000, and there’s been progress, but once systems get as complicated as Zeus I doubt that multiple manufacturers will be involved. In fact, a Zeus engineer pretty much told me that it would be impossible to develop something like station holding unless it was all in-house (and note, you Ethernet freaks, that it’s all done with CANbus). Thus I found it interesting that Altor, the Swedish equity fund that’s taken over both Simrad and Lowrance, also just purchased a large Swedish boatbuilder with close ties to Volvo Penta. “Is this the beginning of a Nordic-centered Brunswick,” is the question I asked in my latest PMY column (mostly about Lowrance, and hopefully online soon). Will other engine and electronics companies merge or make alliances? Will all this push the independent players to greater support of NMEA 2000? Time will tell.
So what do I mean that the new Zeus propulsion system has nerves as well as brains? Well, hooked into the drive controller is an ultra high precision GPS and inertial navigation sensor which feeds it fast updates on the boat’s location along with which way she’s heading, sliding, twisting, rolling etc. Thus the drive gets instant feedback about how well it’s doing what you asked it to do. In other words, if you’re coming alongside a dock and you push the joystick a little bit to starboard, Zeus will take you a little bit to starboard no matter if the current or wind are pushing you hard toward the dock, away from it, or in some other direction. Zeus can do what the very best boat driver does, i.e. observe what the yacht is actually doing in real time, figure out all the forces involved, and compensate for them to get her to go where he wants her to go. Of course the ultimate expression of a totally integrated drive/navigation system like this is its ability to hold station, which seemed rock solid during the demo. It works so well, in fact, that the Cummins guys say they have put Ingenuity next to dock and stepped ashore—no dock lines (though that will never be an advertised feature). That well!
Now it must be noted that the specific navigation sensor hardware being used on the demo is apparently a very expensive Oxford Technologies RT3000 working with private Omnistar differential GPS corrections, which adds a serious subscription expense. But it’s clear that Brunswick’s electronics division is hard at work trying to provide the needed level of precision by the time Zeus becomes a real shipping system. In fact, Zeus may explain why Brunswick picked up MX Marine, which I couldn’t figure out last Spring. The image above shows a Navman/Northstar auto pilot that’s been souped up to work with Zeus’s amazing capabilities (note how the pilot is neatly showing you what the drives are up to as you cast a line, or take a picture, or whatever). It seems obvious that many Zeus boats will be Brunswick hulls with Brunswick drives and Brunswick electronics—all one—which is worth one more Zeus entry, tomorrow.
Above is the Zeus demo boat, which has just departed a slip at Miami’s Sealine Marina and now—instead of the normal hard right, hard left exit—is going dead sideways down the channel. Leaving those bow lines neatly on the pilings was also impressively easy—no stretching—because the driver could bump the bow where he wanted it with just a little twist and push on the joystick. Now omni-directional joystick control, typically using twin engines and a bow thruster, has been around for a while, but Zeus is more powerful and much more precise, and eliminating the thruster eliminates the weakest link. Whereas close-quarters maneuvering is about the hardest thing to learn about boating these days, this is a revolutionary development. So how the hell does it work?
Well, surprise, there is a micro processor involved! Zeus’s control module can steer, shift, and throttle each drive independently…drives which can turn 45 degrees outward and 15 inward, and can do so at a screaming 45 degrees per second. Hence the driver’s simple command to go sideways, or any which ways, results in some complex vector analysis and propulsion commands that only a human trained like a helicopter pilot could pull off (illustrated below). So Zeus is way beyond drive-by-wire technology; it has brains. In fact, it has a nervous system too, which I’ll explain tomorrow.
I still can’t load NOAA’s extra hi res aerial images of Katrina into Google Earth, but did succeed with some hi res black and white imagery from Image America. Above is a small section of the marina, lower middle in the images below. There are also thousands of helicopter photos collected by G.E. users who create and share geopositioned links to them. My excuse for writing about Google Earth on Panbo is that it seems evident that eventually we navigators will have access to something even higher resolution and fresher right from our cockpits...hopefully for viewing more cheerful images, like which slips are free in a rebuilt New Orleans marina. Unfortunately Katrina may be a harbinger of another future. At the risk of spending an even more somber Sunday, check out this essay by the brilliant environmental writer Bill McKibben.
I was a bit taken aback when the wonderful Keyhole was rebranded as Google Earth; it sounds so pretentious. But, geez, it just keeps getting better. Now there’s a free version of G.E., plus they’ve just posted hi res sat photos of New Orleans after Katrina and made it easy to compare them with “before”. These particular images actually came from Google Maps, which is easy to access with a Web browser, but they are also available in G.E., along with super high res daily overlays from NOAA (though I haven’t been able to make the link work yet).
This a marina on Lake Pontchartrain that obviously got walloped by Katrina, despite pretty good protection. That’s a big pile of boats lower right, quite visible zoomed in (I’m hoping no one was there trying to save their ship). I think this marina is where I once began a wild ride on a power yacht aptly named “Bontemps Roulez”. That was way back in 1972, while spending a winter in N.O. working on oil field boats and falling in love with the Music City. Unfortunately I’ve never been back, and now the good times have clearly stopped rolling, at least for a while.
The race to get hard drives into cell phones and PDAs may result in drives that really lend themselves to tough marine environments. Hitachi just announced a 1”, 8 gigabyte drive with ESP (“Extra Sensory Protection”). It uses a 3-axis accelerometer to detect a fall in as short as four inches and switch into non-operational mode, which according to Hitachi can handle 2000 Gs of shock. It’s hard to imagine where such tiny, rugged drives will take us… or to fathom what it means about the future when tech companies name a hard drive "Mikey" and promote it as “the new bling!” Is it politically incorrect to laugh, imagining a roomful of Asian marketing execs discussing “bling”?
Update 9/7: How timely; today Apple announced a new iPod “nano” that obviously uses a drive like "Mikey". Walt Mossberg, the gadget guy at The Wall Street Journal, is in love with it.