At the 2019 National Marine Electronics Association expo, Vesper Marine announced Cortex. It’s a modular system with a base unit, handsets and a mobile app. Cortex systems can start with just an M1 base unit, which provides AIS and monitoring capabilities. Adding an H1 or H1p handset enables VHF radio functionality.
Vesper, which is based in Auckland, New Zealand, describes Cortex as “VHF reimagined.” A few minutes with the handset and its screen showed me what the company means. The functions I might want to access were almost always right on the screen. On the AIS target information screen, for instance, there was a button to call each target. This makes a big difference when compared to the sheer number of button presses required for many features on a typical VHF radio. I’ve tried to use digital selective calling (DSC) station-to-station calling on several radios, only to become frustrated by the number of button presses required.
Most radios on the market today use a two-channel VHF radio, with one channel dedicated to DSC and the second for all audio. So, if you have a priority watch set to monitor channel 16 but are listening to channel 22a, the radio will momentarily tune to channel 16, check for a signal strong enough to break squelch, and then change back to 22a. This pattern can be heard in the form of a momentary break in audio on 22a while the check of 16 is performed.
Vesper is using an eight-channel radio in Cortex, affording a lot of flexibility and capabilities. There are two channels for VHF radio audio: one for DSC, and two for AIS. This leaves three channels available for future functionality. But each channel is dedicated to only one function, so no matter which functions are enabled, there’s no pausing.
Dual watch—monitoring channel 16 and one other channel—is the only priority watch feature that Cortex supports. Vesper plans to implement additional scanning modes and will use another of the eight available channels for scanning.
Cortex has an AIS B/SO transponder and retains all of the collision avoidance, anchor watch and man-overboard safety features for which Vesper is already known. The use of a B/SO transponder means more frequent updates for higher-speed vessels, and pushier radio transmissions to ensure that they make it out in congested traffic areas.
AIS targets can be displayed in a bird’s-eye view, plotter view or text list. Individual target details can be viewed by clicking a target. All data is output over the M1’s NMEA 2000 connections, so you can use your existing multifunction display or apps to show full AIS information.
Cortex’s combination of AIS and VHF radio functionality means that tasks such as initiating a station-to-station DSC call to a vessel visible on AIS becomes as simple as clicking on an AIS target—perhaps one highlighted in red—and then initiating a call via the “call target” button displayed on screen or on an H1 handset.
Vesper’s anchor alarm feature makes use of the high-accuracy, rapid-update GPS receiver built into all AIS units. Previously, Vesper products had an external alarm attached to the AIS unit, or sent an alert via a mobile app. But, the anchor alarm was only available while on the boat. Cortex includes a cellular radio, making the anchor alarm available anywhere there’s cellular coverage.
Vesper also implemented a boat-monitoring and control system. It can monitor anchor watch, GPS position, battery level, bilge level, temperature, shore power, security sensors, bilge pumps, heading, wind, depth and barometric pressure. It also can control lights and refrigeration, or anything else that can be controlled via a relay.
Monitoring is accomplished by a mix of a five-channel, analog I/O port on the Cortex base and Cortex’s NMEA 2000 connection. The NMEA 2000 interface should make expanding the monitoring capabilities to other major systems like engines straightforward.
A twice-daily update of sensor status is included with all Cortex devices. Paid monitoring ($10 per month annually or $20 month-to-month) updates every five minutes, delivers real-time alarm notifications, and allows control of devices on board.
The M1 base unit is the core of a Cortex system. The strikingly compact, IPX7 water-resistant box houses a dizzying number of built-in modules.
The M1 has Wi-Fi, cellular radio, an eight-channel VHF radio (for AIS, VHF and DSC), an NMEA 2000 connection, a GPS input, an analog I/O port (five channels used for monitoring), and heading, barometer and battery voltage sensors. The M1 also has a no-loss VHF radio antenna splitter, to allow a single antenna to serve two VHF radios and AIS.
To enable VHF audio with Cortex, at least one H1 or H1P (the P version is portable with a rechargeable battery) must be present. As many as 10 handsets can be connected to an M1 base. All handsets, with or without a power cord, communicate with the M1 via 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, which works fine in other applications I’ve tried on board.
The Cortex handsets have an optically bonded touchscreen covered with Gorilla Glass that Vesper says will work with gloved and wet hands. The screen is clear and bright with excellent off-angle viewing.
The handset snaps into a cradle that holds it securely and charges the non-corded versions. The battery should last more than 12 hours. In addition to the touchscreen, there are six backlit buttons on the face of the handset that surround a rotating wheel with a select/enter button in the middle. Volume and power buttons are on the right side, the transmit button is on the left, and the protected DSC distress button is on the back.
THE FINE PRINT
Vesper emphasizes the upgradability of Cortex through software. Some advanced features that Vesper says are yet to come include scanning, recording or buffering of audio, weather alerts, hailing/fog signals and intercom between handsets. Alerts are spoken through the 85-decibel speaker that is built into each H1, and are displayed on screen. They can be delivered to a smartphone as well.
A couple of the missing features are important to me, and likely to you too. But, because of the built-in splitter, Cortex can be installed alongside an existing radio that can help bridge any missing functions while they’re being implemented.
Pricing for Cortex depends on the configuration you want. A bundle of one handset and the base unit giving you AIS, monitoring and VHF radio functionality is $1,800. Just the base unit is $1,300, which will provide AIS and monitoring.
Additional handsets, at $600 each, can be added to the M1 base at any time to enable VHF radio capabilities.
Ben Stein is the editor and publisher of Panbo.com, the marine electronics hub. Stein began his career in financial services technology running infrastructure for brokerages. In 2016, he left his corporate career to cruise the Great Loop with his wife and two daughters. Since then, Stein and his family have lived aboard their boat and continue to travel. They’ve covered more than 10,000 nautical miles in the last three years, exploring much of the U.S., Canada and the Bahamas. Stein holds a 100-ton USCG master license.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of PassageMaker Magazine.