Category: Network & control

LowranceNet 2, look what's in the basement!

Mar 6, 2006

LowranceNet kit

Check this out (big size )! It’s the most elaborate test setup a manufacturer ever loaned me, and I learned a lot from it. What you’re looking at is a LowranceNet (aka NMEA 2000) network suitable for, say, a spiffy T-top fishing boat. On top are the sensors: GPS, fuel flow, 3 tank levels, water speed, and 2 water temps. On the bottom are 4 digital gauges capable of showing most any data on the network, plus the LCX 111c HD (hard drive!) fishfinder/plotter, which can also display gauge type data. It all works together quite nicely, and in Miami I got a ride on an actual T-top equipped with all this gear plus a pair of NMEA-2000–talking Evinrude Etec outboards. I saw smooth data integration across the network, with flexible and redundant displays. Oh, there’s a kink or two, which I’ll write about later, but today I want to address my earlier concerns about LowranceNet. If you recall, most of the gear above is NMEA certified but the backbone plugs and cabling are not. Back in Oct. I understood there’d be some resolution to this issue, but so far…nothing. However, I’ve been told by a Lowrance engineer that this cable, though much smaller and less expensive, meets the same specs for shielding, etc. as the certified stuff I tried last summer. Some of which I’m still holding on to (thank you, Raymarine and Maretron). That’s why I was able to try a simple patch cable (above at left) to connect a regular NMEA 2000 device to the LowranceNet backbone. I was even able to marry the Lowrance backbone to the certified backbone with various Maretron units and an E120 hanging off it. Everything powered up and was relatively happy. I do hope Lowrance can get its cable fully legit, but if it works fine—and it seems to—does it really matter? 

Octoplex, using a computer to turn on a light bulb?

Jan 27, 2006

OctoPlex dual NMEA 2000 lines

If you checked out Octoplex yesterday you know it can do all sorts of fancy power management and monitoring tasks, but the more cynical might note that there’s a lot of electronic complications between you the boater and relatively simple tasks like turning on the lights! It’s smart then that Moritz Aerospace is pretty paranoid about what could go wrong with a system like this. Hence:

* OctoPlex uses not one but two of the DeviceNet physical networks specified by NMEA 2000 (shown above, and bigger here). This is rugged, heavily shielded cabling, and this also means that there are two CAN processors in each network node. OctoPlex uses the primary network all for itself and the secondary one to connect to other NMEA 2000 systems, but if the primary fails, the secondary can fill in. Both networks are constantly monitored.

* Even if both network lines completely fail, all active AC and DC breakers stay on and continue to protect their circuits. The DC breakers actually have redundant back up power supplies. The AC breakers, by the way, are actually manual ones actuated by solenoids because it’s not yet practical to do AC with a MOSFET.

* If a DC electronic circuit breaker should fail in the ‘on’ position—that is, ZAP, be delivering current after you turned it off—the system will know it and blow a secondary fuse.

That’s a lot of built-in protection and part of why OctoPlex is an expensive system meant for big boats like the Vikings and Hargraves it will first be seen on. But, geez, look at how conventional boat wiring is evolving, seen below on a medium size Hinckley. That’s some beautiful work, bigger here , but imagine the amount of labor involved. Imagine how hard it is to modify or trouble shoot! We are ready for an entirely new way to manage boat electricity, aren’t we?

Too many wires 


OctoPlex, the three cable boat, and NMEA 2000

Jan 26, 2006

Octoplex Schematic

I mentioned OctoPlex when it received a special mention at METS; now I’m trying to write a column about it and the whole coming revolution in marine power systems. It’s not coming easily, I’m way past deadline, and so this will be short! Here’s the deal: electronic circuit breakers combined with data networks like NMEA 2000 mean the end of conventional circuit breaker panels. The concept is often called “distributed power” but Nigel Calder also uses “the three cable boat” in a series of articles he’s done recently in Professional Boatbuilder, Sail, and Yachting Monthly (none, unfortunately, online, but look down this page for Nigel’s pithy answer to the question “should I try this now”)). In its simplest form plus and minus cables carry power around the boat, teeing off wherever needed to an electronic circuit breaker (ECB) which is controlled by the third (data) cable. ECBs are also known as MOSFETs and they’re complicated animals, but have features like the ability to constantly measure voltage and amperage and even modulate amperage (i.e. dim light circuits). Combine those features with networked, microprocessor-based switching—and, hey, you might as well throw in tank, bilge, etc. monitoring since you’ve already got the network and screens—and you start getting something as powerful as OctoPlex. Check out a much larger version of the schematic here. This system can automatically shed power loads, protect individual circuits against brown out, setup custom dimming programs, tell you if a nav light blows out, and so forth…sky’s the limit. But can things go badly wrong on the three cable boat? Hell, yes! Which is why OctoPlex is redundant every which way. More on that later.

Northstar 8000i, the architecture

Jan 2, 2006

8000i System Diagram, Panbo draft

The 8000i has a lot of sizzle, and some interesting new charts, but let’s start coverage with a system overview (bigger here):

* The sunlight viewable multifunction displays are Windows PCs; the 12” is self contained while the 15” is broken into monitor, processor, and keyboard modules. (Both units are also touch screen, but more on that later).

* This is a ‘masterless’ network, meaning that sounder, radar, cameras, and even the various sensor networks go directly to an Ethernet hub. If one PC is shut down, or craps out, it should not affect what the others can do. Several manufacturers have network black box sounders, and a couple have Ethernet radars, but this is the first time I’ve seen network cameras or a Network Interface Bridge (USB, SmartCraft, and NMEA 0183, with—hooray!—NMEA 2000 coming in the fall).

* The only exception to this ‘masterless’ design is that only one processor can be an entertainment server, burning CDs and DVDs with the built in ‘jukebox’ software. But then any display can play from the music and movie library at will, audio going to a nearby stereo and video either playing right on the 8000i screen or on a TV.

* All the parts shown, and the necessary cabling, are supposedly waterproof and marine tough.

Yes, it’s expensive—the 12” retails at $7,000–-but the 8000i looks like a smartly designed system, with a lot of redundancy, power, flexibility, and pizazz built in. More details to come.

Offshore Systems 3271, the perfect fuel tank sensor?

Nov 25, 2005

Offshore Fuel Sender

This Offshore Systems fuel sender sounds perfect…stainless steel with no moving parts, measures fuel tank level to 1% accuracy, installs and delivers data all via a NMEA 2000 trunk line, and it can reportedly detect water in the fuel! However, it costs $295 with a 20” probe, more with longer (cutable) probes, and I’m just a tiny bit dubious about the water sensing capability. This sensor is “capacitive”, which I think means it uses the same technology as the “dielectric” bilge pump switches I discussed here once. If the Offshore sender detects water in your fuel it sends alternating “full” and “empty” signals. I wonder if a small amount of water might trigger this, and then you wouldn’t know how much fuel you had? Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I’d like to hear about successful field trials. Note that Offshore has a new 3125 2000 Sender Adapter which will work with standard resistive senders, and thus with any fluid {corrected 11/28; it turns out that Maretron is not distributing Offshore's sensors (but is working on its own NMEA 2000 tank sender adapter)}.

Update 11/26: I got this note from Offshore Systems: �The water sensing feature really works. Whenever the bottom of the probe detects water the sender sends alternate tank full / tank empty messages at the default rate of 1 message every 2.5 seconds. This will make any display very noticeable to the user to indicate that this tank is contaminated and should not be used until it has been drained and cleaned.� Sounds good�like a little water floating on half a tank of diesel�where it won�t really cause problems�also won�t set off the alarm and stop tank level measuring.

Garmin 2006 new marine products, a slew

Nov 15, 2005


The Garmin media team was busy last night, distributing a stack of complicated press releases and a pile o’ product shots, all to describe some 20 new units that were introduced at METS today (and will go on sale next March). Here are the bullet points I’ve gathered so far:

* New BlueChart G2 (next generation) charts feature 3D perspective, tides and currents overlay, and other enhancements, and a slew of new plotters, plotter/fishfinders, and network multifunction displays (like the 3206 above, bigger here) come preloaded with all U.S. coastal G2’s. (NOAA’s freebie policy strikes again!)

* But G2 is a two tier product, sort of like what Navionics is up to, and G2 chart cards add more data like detailed coastal roads, more POIs, and color aerial photos of critical areas. Garmin says that U.S. cards will start at $199, “far less than competitors”. (But I don’t know what that means exactly). G2, by the way, is not compatible with older plotters, except the 3000 series, but older BlueCharts will work in new plotters.

* Garmin has a new network Pt-gpsmap498called CANet, which can connect the smaller 292, 392, and 492 plotters with two new black box fishfinders or the new 398 full fishfinder. It sounds like a CANbus variant but is 1 megabit (?). The GSD-22 bb is Garmin’s “first digital sonar, allowing for more precise target separation and depth performance” and also supports Garmin’s MarineNet (Ethernet).

It’s going to be interesting to see how all these products stack up. I’m wondering, for instance, what Garmin’s version of 3D perspective looks like, and whether G2 will also come on CD. And, of course, pesky observers like Panbo reader R.O. are asking “what about NMEA 2000”. More to come, to be sure.

PS It will also be interesting to see who picked up DAME awards at METS today; this is one of the better innovation competitions out there, I think. And, by the way, Jeff Hummel is at METS and says he’ll write a Panbo guest blog on his findings.

Maretron ultrasonic wind sensor, the plot thickens

Nov 14, 2005

Maretron WSO100_webAt the NMEA show, Maretron showed off a prototype of this ultrasonic wind sensor that also measures air temp, barometric pressure, and relative humidity. In other words, the WSO100 Weather Station Outdoor is quite like Airmar’s WeatherStation. Neither, in fact, is actually a shipping product yet, even though Airmar’s was introduced at the 2004 NMEA show (the power boat model is supposedly very close, and is now detailed in a .pdf at Airmar’s Web site). Airmar’s first unit, for about $1,000, will talk in NMEA 0183 and will include an electronic compass and GPS so it can calculate true wind speed and direction. Maretron’s will cost around $600 and will need heading and SOG info from the NMEA 2000 network to do the True calculations. Airmar plans to eventually introduce a 2000 WeatherStation and Maretron may very well do an 0183 version of its sensor, which, by the way, it engineered from scratch. I hope to try both when possible, and figure that having two ultrasonic wind sensors on the market (beside the French original) will be good for consumer awareness (and a healthy competition).

SmartCraft, the parallel universe

Nov 1, 2005

Northstar 12-inch 6000i Smart Craft

I got a peek at this display during NMEA , and I’m looking forward to going deeper in Lauderdale. What’s the docking display? How much control does the user get over engine alarms? Are detailed diagnostics also available? This Northstar 6000i is (theoretically) connected via a gateway to a Mercury inboard or outboard engine equipped with SmartCraft, a CANbus data networking and control system with many similarities to NMEA 2000. The big difference really is that SmartCraft was developed by Brunswick and is being used by its New Technologies group (MotoTron, Northstar, Navman, et al) mostly in boats build by Brunswick. Other companies like Airmar, Onan, Dometic, Xantrex, and DNA Group have gotten involved, but SmartCraft is essentially driven in a top-down, business-like way. By contrast, NMEA 2000 sometimes seems like chaos. Maybe that’s why there are currently lots more SmartCraft boats out there than NMEA 2000 ones. It may be a parallel universe, but if it works well for you…well, cool. Then again I’ve heard that there are some downsides to SmartCraft worth discussing one day. 

Note that the 6000i above is a new 12” model, meaning that you can now get these networked multifunction displays in a phenomenal five sizes—15”, 12”, 10.4”, 8.4” and 6.4”—which is great for folks designing a multi display helm like this (put together, unfortunately I think, before the 12 or 15 inch models materialized).

LowranceNET NMEA2000, bad news, good news

Oct 17, 2005


Oy, I’m a tired puppy after 5 days of NMEA conference and yet more plane rides. Yesterday’s featured a puking infant during a bumpy landing in Boston followed by a final leg into Rockland on a little plane purposely run with some empty seats (they also rearranged us “for balance”, causing a wee bit more nervousness). But I am fully loaded with interesting info about NMEA 2000, AIS, new products and more, and I should be able to post more frequently, at least this week.

For starters, check out the NMEA 2000 “consistent” wiring system above introduced by Lowrance (more detail in a pop-up at It looks a lot like the standard NMEA 2000 cabling and connectors I’ve been testing but in fact it’s not certified and its plugs are purportedly not compatible! This is certainly not what the standard was supposed to be about—plug and play interoperability between different brands of gear—and I’m told it caused quite a hubbub in the NMEA 2000 committee meetings.  (And I hope those folks who think NMEA is a “club” dedicated to keeping small developers out will note how fractious it really is).  In fact there have been issues with the 2000 cable standard all along. Many think it’s too expensive and/or too bulky. That’s why Simrad, Raymarine, and Lowrance each use their own proprietary 2000 cable to interconnect their own 2000 equipment (which is legal under the standard). That’s why Simrad and Raymarine had to supply patch cables to tee into my test system (though I could have made them fairly easily).

So it would seem even messier if Lowrance sells an alternate, uncertified backbone cable/tee system—even if it leads to some of the first 2000 production boats, as announced by Ranger last week—but I’m told that there is going to be a happy ending to this story. Two reliable sources tell me that there will be a major breakthrough in the cable situation announced within a month. I’m guessing they mean that Lowrance will end up truly compliant and that the industry will agree on a second, less costly (though possibly more limited) cable and connector standard.

Airmar Smart Sensors, lots

Sep 21, 2005

One comment that inspired my “Geeks vs ME Empire” rant a while back was: “Megalomaniacal marine elex vendors disdain such commoditization as evidenced by the disappearance of most stand alone dumb GPS sensors and proprietary integration of d/s sounders into proprietary networks.” I really, really didn’t understand where that commenter was coming from. It strikes me that the planet is awash in GPS sensors that can output iAirmar smart sensorn NMEA 0183 format (or 2000) via bare wire, standard serial plug, USB, Bluetooth, etc. etc. I have a cheap Deluo mouse GPS that has swappable dongles so that it can output via DB9, USB, and custom iPaq PDA serial plugs (& get power too), and it’s worked with all sorts of software. How commoditized can you get?

And while it wasn’t long ago that all depth, speed, temp, etc. sensors were proprietary, these days Airmar (which makes most of them) offers a wide variety of “Smart” versions. More than I realized, actually, as I discovered at Airmar’s much improved web site (try the Smart Sensor .pdf for starters). As illustrated, these sensors process their own signals. Add power and out comes NMEA 0183 or 2000 data to feed a plotter or multifunction display from most any of the ME manufacturers or a PC or, in the 2000 case, a network of up to 50 separate devices. So what was that guy talking about?