PC On Board, Now What?

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In June of 2011, I took the plunge and bought a 48-foot Bruce Roberts pilothouse trawler. She is made of steel, like the big boys, and it was love at first sight, partially for what she was already, but most definitely for what she could be.

You see, by day, I have a marketing job, but on my own time, I’m an engineer and a tinkerer. I’ve had this condition most of my life and there seems to be no cure. So, I’ve learned to roll with it, and everything becomes a hobby to me—something to take apart and put back together (with some improvements being made as well). I thought I would share the process I went through to add a PC to the pilothouse, in case others are interested and can benefit from some of the lessons I learned.

At the beginning, I was dedicated to the basics, crawling over every inch of the vessel to see how she’s put together, learning her maintenance needs, and catching up on some long overdue TLC, and a little boating.

The first fun project on the boat was putting a PC in the pilothouse—a 21-inch touch-screen display, quad processor, ginormous hard disk, and wi-fi—I just love staring at it. It’s amazing what kind of technology $850 can buy these days.

One benefit of a pilothouse trawler is that it’s comfortable and weather resistant. Rain will never damage the PC. It’ll be at least a few years before the boat is affected by moisture or the salty air, and I’ll be ready for an upgrade by then. So, commercial technology is probably good enough.

FIRST SET OF INSTALLATIONS

Here is my initial list of PC installations:

  • Music library: An unexpected benefit, the computer has great built-in speakers and Beats Audio—whatever that is. Bottom line: it sounds good.
  • Video library: There’s a wide-screen DVD player too.
  • Photo library: It’s necessary to share the good times.
  • Document library: Most onboard equipment documentation is available as PDF files these days.
  • OpenCPN chartplotting software: Free chartplotting and navigation software, and free NOAA charts. All I needed to add was a $35 USB GPS receiver. I’ve used OpenCPN extensively and am very impressed with its capabilities. (For more information, visit www.opencpn.org.)

This first set of installations is a good start, but I knew there was so much more I could add to the list, so I decided the boat needed a wireless access point, which opened the door to many more possibilities:

SECOND SET OF INSTALLATIONS

  • Wireless router: Letting multiple devices connect to the Internet is important.
  • RealVNC: Remote access and control software for the pilothouse computer. I can walk around the boat and access/control any desktop applications on the PC. This is especially handy when piloting from the flybridge.
  • Wireless camera on the mast: This greatly improves visibility from behind. The less you need to rely on the crew, the better. A $129 FOSCAM outdoor camera solved the visibility issue, making backing into a slip a lot easier. I can connect to the camera from any screen on board.
  • Remote control for music: I added an iTunes remote control from my iPhone. Why? Because I can.

The second set of installations and improvements lasted for about a month. Then the next idea came along: If I upgrade the router to one that can accept a cell modem, then the boat becomes a hotspot for everyone on board. And, maybe I can find a way for the boat to send me messages when I’m not there, just to let me know she’s safe and sound.

I don’t want to leave the main computer on all the time because it is a power-hungry beast when it’s on, coming in at about 15 amps. A router and camera, on the other hand, doesn’t use as much power, and neither does a Twine remote monitor. Those devices can all run off the battery at about 1.5 amps.

LAST SET

The next set of upgrades included some exciting new features:

  • Another FOSCAM for inside the boat: It has motion sensing and sends me an email with pictures if it ever senses anything or anyone on board.
  • GRIB Weather files: These display what the weather folk use for free. http://www.grib.us/
  • Updated NOAA charts: I downloaded these for free from this website:http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/.
  • Web Link library: There are dozens of online sources for marine data—NOAA buoys, tide charts, weather, ship tracking through AIS, etc.—and having a web link library is useful.
  • Facebook: Yes, boats can have pages too. My boat’s page is www.facebook.com/RyKa.Trawler. Plus, Facebook makes a handy logbook.
  • Google: You just can’t live without that, or streaming audio, streaming video, Google Earth, and, most importantly, technical support. The best source of information on how-tos seems to be in forums. (Visitwww.thehulltruth.com.)
  • Twine remote monitor: This little gadget monitors temperature, orientation, and one of several external input types. With access to the hotspot, it texts me and emails me if a preset temperature is reached, if the boat changes its orientation, or if it senses water, among other things. (Visit www.supermechanical.com.)

Up until now, the PC tasks have been pretty straightforward, but I’m going to take it one step further.

I’ve spent the majority of my career in the industrial automation field, specifically, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). There are many products that you can purchase and assemble into a monitoring or control solution without being a software developer, but assembly does require a high level of domain and configuration knowledge, which means you need to become aware of communication protocols, electrical signals for monitoring, and relay interfaces for controls. If you are up to the task, then you can really challenge yourself creatively, as I am currently doing.

MONITORING

My next PC enhancement involves monitoring all the major systems on board. My goal is to collect data and understand what is normal, so I can detect anything abnormal as soon as possible. I want a system that will notify me if things go astray.

Looking at gages is not an option. While they offer a great fallback (and you should always have a level of redundancy in any boat system), gages are only useful if you happen to be looking at them. And most alarms are good at signaling a failure, not prompting items that need to be looked at.

Items I’d like to monitor:

  • Outside water temperature
  • Engine exhaust water temperature
  • Oil temperature
  • Oil pressure
  • Engine rpm
  • Alternator voltage
  • Alternator exciter voltage (How hard the alternator is working.)
  • Generator temperature
  • Hot water heater temperature
  • Tank kevels (This is a tough one, as I don’t have level sensors today.)
  • Rudder position
  • Battery currents
  • Bilge pumps
  • Moisture sensors in the bilge
  • Breaker status
  • Smoke detector
  • Carbon monoxide detector
  • Propane tank shutoff
  • Refrigerator and freezer

I want to start tracking history based on the data. This will help diagnose many things, from filters to impellers and engine coolant circulation. I’ll build a database of normal data under various conditions of revolutions per minute and ambient weather.

All SCADA software (also known as HMI, Human Machine Interface software) can handle monitoring tasks with ease. I found two useful companies: one is called DGH (www.dghcorp.com), which provides data acquisition (I/O) technology, and the other is a monitoring software company called Kessler-Ellis Products (www.kep.com).

Monitoring software needs to communicate with hardware using additional communications software that speaks the appropriate protocol. In the automation world, there are many protocol standards. MODBUS-RTU is the name of one standard that is very prevalent. The monitoring software includes communication software by a company called Kepware (www.kepware.com). (MODBUS-RTU data protocol delivers the communications functionality for industrial automation products in a similar way that NMEA 0183 data protocol delivers the communications for integrating navigation equipment.)

DGH I/O modules can take a couple of forms and can be nicely distributed around a boat. There’s no need to bring your sensor wiring to one location, or to the main computer. This simplifies installation tremendously. All you have to do is turn on the power and communications to DGH module locations. (DGH manufactures sensor-based data acquisition hardware.)

For temperature monitoring, I like using thermocouples (sensors that measure temperature). These can be taped or screwed to the items you want to measure and will not impact existing sensors. For voltages, you will likely need to use some resistors to drop the voltages to a range that can be monitored. These modules can read up to 10 volts. If you want to read your battery chargers, which may run up to 14 or 15 volts, then you will want to reduce those to something below 10 volts. The signals can all be scaled correctly in the software.

DGH I/O modules are “programmed” for the various signals you want to monitor. Utility software helps set each channel in the module as needed for thermocouples or higher voltages. This utility software also lets you check to make sure the sensors are all working and delivering the data you expect. Modules are available for the full range of sensing and control, both analog and digital inputs and outputs. Once programmed, the settings remain the same, so you don’t have to keep re-programming it.

The next step involves configuring the driver or communications software. The communications software is a stand-alone program that is installed and licensed. It communicates over a COM port.

I used a USB to RS-485 converter to take the signal from the PC USB port to the wires that connect to the I/O modules. RS-485 is a multi-drop communication standard from one master to many slave devices over a two-wire connection.

Finally, there is the SCADA software. I’m using a KEP solution called Infilink. It’s not too big and not too small. It offers a great feature set and is lean enough in its design, so it does not use a lot of computer resources. That was a key factor in my decision to use Infilink, since the computer is doing so many different tasks, it would be a bad idea to have one program using all the computer’s resources.

Infilink monitors and displays all sensor data, and logs data history. It offers on-screen animation to create gages, bar graphs, and trend displays. The computer dashboard can be anything I want it to be—from a Starship Enterprise readout, to the dashboard display of a Ferrari. Oh no, so many decisions, but I’ll be settling on something in between.

Color changes let me know when an alarm is going off, and I’ll be able to touch the screen to call up a detail display of the parameter, including a history trend and associated sensor values. If I get bored with one display, I can draw a better one.

Existing engine gages and engine controls are pretty basic. I also expect the computer screen to become the primary interface for health monitoring.

WHAT I LEARNED

As I stated earlier, a project of this type isn’t for the faint of heart, or those with little patience. It was, and is an ongoing challenge. I think it is human nature to complicate our lives. We take pride in creating a scenario that makes us marvel when it works. But keep Murphy’s Law in mind—“It can and will fail, and at the worst possible time.”

So, the next time you consider a project like this, be sure to consider redundancies. If the PC is down, have backup navigation available on an iPad, and be practiced in using it. Backup devices can also serve multiple purposes. For example, my iPad doubles as a backup camera display, when I don’t need it for navigation. Don’t remove the old gages. Keep them working and keep referring to them, so you remember what is typical, which will help you recognize the atypical.

The more software you load onto a computer, the more likely you will have something that misbehaves. A project like this takes time. You should consider loading software over time, testing components one by one until they work, and documenting the process as you go along. If you load something new, keep checking back on the old, to make sure you haven’t introduced a problem.

I often wondered why solutions like the one above aren’t more prevalent for boaters, delivered as a kit for example. Having done this project, I now understand that it isn’t the technology or software costs that make up the bulk of this not-so-easy process, it is by far the configuration and troubleshooting time.

And, any profits can quickly be eaten up by a finicky software driver. I have had the computer in the pilothouse for over a year now, and I still wrestle with my GPS for no reason sometimes, especially when it needs updates. When this happens, I usually just have to restart the computer. It may be a small price to pay for this high-tech toy, but if I paid someone to deliver a system, I would be expecting 100% reliability. I’m still working on it, and the good news is that I’m not charging myself very much.

My next project—a cannon on the foredeck (wishful thinking).

If you think I can be of any assistance, feel free to contact me roytkok@gmail.com.