Boat Command: remote vessel monitoring for the app age

Steve Mitchell

Steve Mitchell

Editor of SailBits.com, avid technology and sailing geek, and musician.

18 Responses

  1. Dan Corcoran (b393capt) says:

    Outstanding entry. Interesting product, great pics, and well written.

  2. Andy Brown says:

    Steve,
    I’ve been looking at this space for a couple years and one of the things that I like about a dedicated system versus tying into the N2k bus is that the power draw is much less when you don’t need to turn on N2k bus.
    There are quite a few players in the market. Over the last couple of years at METs there has been a dozen or so companies trying to get into this space. I haven’t really noticed anyone getting much traction yet.
    Interestingly enough, it is quite easy to roll your own using an Adruino or Raspberry. I’m not sure what issues you had with your system but I was able to put together a an alert system using IFTTT.com (If this then that), COSM (now Xively) and an inexpensive data sim card.
    Andy Brown
    Blue Sea Systems Engineering Wonk

  3. One thing about Boat Command that Steve didn’t mention, but which I noticed pretty quickly, is the lack of an internal or aux power supply. In other words, if its power supply goes down — which is typically your boat’s main battery bank — Boat Connect goes down too and you know nothing about it until maybe you check the web site or app after a while and notice that there are no new updates.
    By contrast, the Siren Marine products have internal recharging backup power, and you not only get alerted if main power goes down but Siren monitoring stays alive. I believe there are scenarios where that becomes especially critical, like when the boat thief is smart enough to cut mysterious power leads around the main panel but still can’t find the hidden monitoring device.
    What’s more, there is no reference whatsoever to backup power on the competition “Why pay more and get less?” comparison chart that Boat Command offers at the bottom of its home page — https://boatcommand.com/ . Now I like it when companies dare to put up comparisons like that, but this is a good example of why skepticism is mandatory.
    I also like Boat Command, a lot, but backup power is an issue. An easy partial fix, I think, would be the option to get an alert if the cloud site does not receive its regular update from the boat unit, which should be as easy as creating the “heartbeat” message that let’s you know all is well daily or at an interval you’d like better (a desire Steve mentioned). It’s just software (he said).
    Finally, I’ve seen over the years how important those “I’m OK” messages can be. There’s sort of a psych element to why boat monitoring has not taken off, I think, based on this: For many of us a boat is an object of pleasure, and thus worrying about it can be little hard to fully acknowledge. Which is why that first “I’m OK” message can feel like such a relief, and may be followed up with “Why the hell didn’t I get boat monitoring sooner” 😉

  4. Hi Andy,
    Those are great options to do a DIY system. I’ve tried a number of different options too, including IFTTT.
    I have several Linux boxes using various things to send messages to me when conditions change in addition to the Boat Command. Having the centralized LTE / WiFi device allows me to have multiple devices leverage the connection, as well as provide a permanent network on board for other things (remote access, etc.).
    While the DIY stuff I have works, it requires a lot of configuration, trial and error, as well as lacks the data logging information. I’m sure I could plumb IFTTT with something like Graphite or another database system to track changes as well.
    My long term goal has always been to have a data collecting device on the boat that forwards down-sampled versions of the data off to the cloud where it can be analyzed not only for alerts, but also for trends and more. We’re even closer to that today with SignalK and other things than we have before, and I look forward to more new software and DIY stuff in this space as well!

  5. I have to say I’m very happy using Victron Energy’s VRM portal/VRM World and Color Control GX to monitor my electric propulsion sailing yacht. I particularly like the remote control feature, so I can update say inverter firmware and best of all I can switch inverter/chargers on/off and change settings – all from my Smartphone or laptop.
    A public page for my private conversion to electric propulsion is here:
    https://www.facebook.com/ElektraYachts/
    I’ve written a blog for Victron about their VRM World
    https://www.victronenergy.com/blog/2016/02/17/vrm-world-view-shared-vrm-sites-around-the-world/
    John Rushworth

  6. DouglasP says:

    Very glad to see a review of Boat Command in addition to Ben’s of Siren. THANKS!
    I am definitely in the market for a monitoring system so a month ago or so I called both companies. After reading everything on their sites I felt more drawn to the Siren system but was interested in monitoring more than one battery/bank and concerned about whole “What happens when I am away from the boat in the Bahamas?” deal.
    In a call to Siren I was informed that they are planning a new product that will monitor two battery banks, WILL do “international” and do a few more new tricks but… When? I dunno…
    What I’d really like to see is someone jump onboard the wireless sensor train, or tell me why it shouldn’t happen!;) I have various types of wireless sensors from ADT all over my house that run for at least a year on one small 123 battery.
    Anyway, I’ve been waiting to see if there is some announcement on Siren’s site or in their blog about an upcoming unit but so far, nada…
    Ben, do you have any info on a new/forthcoming Siren system?
    Anyway, thanks for ALL the great info and reviews!

  7. Alex says:

    Steve,
    Steve awesome write up in this topic and thanks for sharing. Boat monitoring is here to stay. These days people talk to their house, car, and each other strictly thru M2M. Its time they talk to their boat as well.
    I think when it comes to boat monitoring a back up power source is key. That is one key component that pretty much turned me off this product right off the bat. Loss of external power, blow a fuse and your left in the dark. Lets says you pay $22 a month for unlimited everything but your boat battery drops to 11.5v and now you can’t get anything. Another thing that they say they offer is weather….Internal onboard temp is one thing and that is great to see. But when it just says “weather” with a outside temp thats technically just using your position to give you a local temp. There is nothing that can give you actual weather reports like rain/sun/lightning??
    Can you just expand on the subscription side of things? It says “unlimited alerts” for the $6 sub to the $22 sub but a limited number of “on demand reports”. Does sending a command to disarm or arm the system count as a “on demand action”?
    Again thanks for the info and thank you Ben as always for your input.

  8. Sparky says:

    @Andy
    “an inexpensive data sim card”
    Do tell more please. How are you doing LTE connectivity on your boat?
    Thanks

  9. Hi Alex,
    Thanks for the kind words!
    IoT (Internet of Things) and remote access is not just something nice to have, but in many cases consumers expect that it will be available for every product they purchase. I use SmartThings and a few other technologies at home, and can do some amazing things both while home, and away. I’m hoping this happens with Remote Vessel Monitoring soon as well.
    Ben pointed out, as you have as well, that the lack of a backup battery is something that Boat Command needs to address. I think the easiest way is to have a notification on their end that comes out if the unit disappears off the network. Should be relatively easy to do, and not require a re-tooling of the physical hardware to add a battery. That being said, they don’t have it know, and Siren and others do, so if that is a concern to your install, BC might not be the right choice.
    I am in the online app very frequently, and have other means of knowing if my battery banks fail, so I’m not worried about that piece for now.
    Weather right now is just a temperature from nearby weather stations. I don’t have an outdoor weather device anymore (used to on Jammy — Maretron WSO100) and am OK with just having local temp – it’s a good indication of whether the internal temp on the boat is being influenced or other things going on. Right now they do not have weather reports beyond just the basic temp, but that’s a good idea.
    Might be even better to have an embedded link to your local marine forecast, or ties into Windyty or other tools like that! I know I look at detailed forecasts before doing much on the boat…
    I am not sure that commanding something to turn on or off counts as an on-demand action. If you hit refresh to get updated data from everything, that definitely counts. I think what they’re trying to limit is the cellular data costs of sending up all of the info on all of the sensors to their servers, not necessarily an on/off action of a relay, but I don’t know that definitively.
    Thanks very much for your comment!

  10. Adam Hyde says:

    With a two battery input would it not be fairly easy to rig up a very small 12v solar / battery / charger combo to power the BC, like is used for hiking or camping? The specs show 70 mA at peak, so it doesn’t seem to be a big power hog?

  11. Chris Logan says:

    I have a Boat Command on my vessel and have been pleased with its operation using the motion sensor, temp monitor, battery monitor, but I do wish they had more info on how to utilize the relay controls. The unit lacks a way to hook up a standard feature of a security alarm siren or light with reset capabilities. If anyone has done this please forward the info for a fellow DIYer.

  12. Dave L says:

    Not to worry, Boat command will operate at a lower level than your battery alarm. Unless you blow the fuse, you will receive the message.
    I do agree that their billing options need to be explained better. Other than that I am extremely pleased with the unit.
    One caveat – they use at&t for cell service, so make sure you have coverage.

  13. Cool! It turns out that my Sail colleague Clark Beek is quite the fan of Boat Command and has figured out how to set it up with a smoke alarm:
    http://www.sailfeed.com/2016/08/boat-command-connect-meets-smoke-alarm/
    Clark gave me access to his BC web page — a nice feature — and it’s impressive. He’s logging (and often alarming) 2 batteries, 2 bilge pumps, the smoke alarm, an entry alarm, and his engine hours, besides the standard geofence and inside temp.

  14. John says:

    Boat Command is NOT reliable all the time. When it works, it works great, but there are times – far too many… that you cannot be an update for hours. WHY??? I have repeatedly asked the owner and managing partner – I get the same BS answers all the time – “it could be YOUR internet etc”. I try it on 3 different units operating under Comcast, Verizon and T Mobile – Same crap – Last update was 6 hours ago. This is not reliable if YOUR boat is sinking!!!! Be careful what to expect from this – there are ISSUES with reliability.
    Otherwise, it would be a GREAT item.
    john

  15. Hi John,
    I’ve found automated Boat Command alerts and updates to be very reliable, but sometimes when I request an update from the phone app or my BC web page, it takes more than the warned-about 30 seconds for the BC server to contact the boat unit and get info back.
    So please explain your problem in more detail. If you look at the battery listing, is the voltage being updated at least at the rate your subscription promises, every 8, 4 or 1 hours? That would indicate that the cellular connection from your boat to BC is solid.
    Have you tried doing something on the boat that should cause an alert like opening a certain door or activating a high bilge alarm? I’ve tried this fairly often and have always gotten a text message alert within a minute.

  16. Ben SteinBen Stein says:

    I had some of the same concerns you raised, Steve, about the unit not being marinized. Mine has been in the engine room of my boat for about two years now. It gets hot down there, sometimes a little damp and sometimes a little salty. I’ve not seen any issues. I think the thing I’d most like to see them make a bit more robust is the wiring harness. Currently they just ship a bunch of stripped and (I think) tinned wires. I’d much prefer a terminal block or something similar.

    • I have had mine installed for 2+ years now and have had no issues with corrosion either. I agree on the wiring harness – it is a bit of a rats nest.

      Still, my biggest issue with Boat Command is the lack of an alarm when it is disconnected. During my recent LiFePO4 install, I had it disconnected for several weeks, and had absolutely no notifications. In the real world, that would be catastrophic.

      I am testing the new Siren MTC which has a built in battery, and so far has been pretty interesting to test.

      • Ben SteinBen Stein says:

        Monitor the monitor. I think I’ve heard that somewhere before ;-). For the price point, I think Boat Command is a nice little system. It isn’t as capable as some of the other bigger dollar systems but it does a basic set of things nicely. It would be nice if they made a few changes, alerting you to the system being offline is certainly one of them.

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