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.
This babe, the first of Inmarsat’s 4th generation satellite fleet, was launched in March and recently went into service over the Indian Ocean. That dish antenna is 9 meters across, the array of solar panels extend 45 meters. The flap at far left is a “sail”, able to “harness pressure exerted by particles from the Sun - the solar wind - to steer the I-4 and fine-tune its orbital position”. This bird is already improving existing Inmarsat service in its planet print, and is just about to really show its stuff in terms of high speed data. Tim Queeney at Ocean Navigator nicely lays out what this all means for actual boat communications here (not much yet, unless your ride is a megayacht).
Never mind that Yme covered this Friday’s (mega) gizmo early last year. LookSea is truly unique, little known, and, besides, it was developed right here in the great state of Maine. What you’re seeing—larger image here—are a fenced route and buoy icons precisely superimposed on the video flowing from a pan and tilt, high resolution, wide angle camera mounted on the cabin top. ARPA and AIS targets, charted obstructions, and whatever else you need (and only what you need) can also be geopositioned on the live video. This is damn tricky to pull off accurately, and if it wasn’t done really fast, it would literally make you sick. I saw it demoed in a bouncy little boat on a snotty night, and can tell you that it works beautifully (fat .pdf of my article available here). I second the claim that LookSea is the “only augmented reality marine navigational system available and represents a quantum leap in safety and situational awareness.” It’s darn expensive, but I figure it’s a harbinger of things to come. (LookSea now a good step-by-step demo and other materials here).
I’m on the road to Annapolis where I’ll get to trial Maptech’s wild new fishfinder module for its i3 system, maybe catch a croaker too. The poor photo above is of a simulation playing at the Miami Boat Show introduction. You can see on the left a regular 2D fishfinder screen while on the right the fish targets have been placed into a 3D bathy model; among other things, you can control how long targets stay on screen so that you can learn where fish hang out over time. Then on Thursday I’m visiting Airmar, source of the transducer and processor behind this module, and much more. My posting may get a little raggedy.
If you go to the NMEA Web site and click on “NMEA 2000 Info”, the very first thing you’ll learn is how expensive it is to use the standard. These fees piss off small developers no end. (And isn’t it poor marketing on the part of NMEA? Why not have some good dope there about how the standard works and what it can do?) But the fees are there to finance the infrastructure needed to truly support a complex plug’n’play standard. For instance, I recently heard that updating the software certification tool that assures compatability will cost something like $200,000.
Meanwhile, I was out on Sunday checking out the benefits of that compatability again, and looking foolish. (Is there a geekier 14’ outboard afloat?) Now I have the laptop mounted, also sharing data fine, though currently the Maretron gateway translates 2000 into 0183 because no PC program reads NMEA 2000 directly. That’s going to change, and I’m told that eventually thousands of independent programmers will be using 2000 data to build boat applications we haven’t imagined yet.