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.
I like this: GPS backed up—plus made more accurate, even able to deliver better than 1° heading accuracy at rest—with LORAN! And this is LORAN without the fiddly complexity of compensating for “Additional Secondary Factors” in coastal waters or switching ‘Chains’ on long voyages. Si-Tex’s eLoran is not quite shipping yet, but I’ll bet it will get loads of attention (Chuck Husick already has this to say). In fact, we’ve all gotten so dependent on GPS that it’s a little scary. I wrote about its vulnerability, and the possible resurgence of LORAN as a complimentary system back in 2002, and have since noted the government’s funding of LORAN base station improvements. It’s great to see belt & suspenders electronic positioning come to recreational boating, not to mention the non magnetic heading sensor capability. Actually, eLoran is one result of a military research contract executed by Si-Tex’s mother company, Koden. Note that this initial product will only work with certain Si-Tex plotters and PC software at first, but other manufacturers will be free to add compatability. I’ve also been told that eLoran will cost about $1,000, and I plan to try one out when available.
Eli, proprietor of the often stimulating EliBoat, knows Maine waters and yesterday wondered “if the new charting programs will ever find a way to plot 6 trillion lobster pots.” His number is only a slight exaggeration; the pot buoys and their warps really are a navigation problem. Eli jests but I do hear talk of AIS transponders replacing RACON buoys at harbor entrances and maybe someday the tiny RFID radios supposedly coming to everything in Walmart will warn a boater of a dead on buoy about to tangle his prop. But in the meantime a sharp blade can do what electronics can’t. I tried this Hook Knife from Sailors Solutions last summer and it is wickedly effective.