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Networked Instruments

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By Mark Tilden

Many of the leading marine electronics manufacturers are moving rapidly in the direction of networked instrument systems. These networked systems offer amazing flexibility and features, as well as the ability to add new functionality to your system as new compatible network products become available. Many manufacturers already offer networked GPS, depth sounders, radar, cameras, and weather receivers, with multifunction displays that can show any combination of this information.

Most manufacturers base their networks on either Ethernet or NMEA 2000. However, at the time of this writing, most of the Ethernet networks used in these systems still use proprietary protocols that don't allow you to connect your networked systems to the rest of your boat's Ethernet network and share data. However, that seems likely to change. For example, Furuno, in cooperation with MaxSea, has already provided a path for connecting the Ethernet-based NavNet system to a PC using MaxSea software. It seems inevitable that most instrument manufacturers will eventually open their networks to integration with common TCP/IP networks.
While we aren't quite there yet, imagine the possibilities of network-connected marine electronics that interoperate with computers and other devices on an Ethernet network.

  • In the future, instruments might be able to send an email or text message when they detect a fault or alarm condition, much like network cameras can currently be configured to send email when they detect motion or alarm inputs. Your GPS could send an email to you telling you that your boat is moving (if it has broken loose from its mooring or is being stolen), or your instruments could send you a message when the wind speed increases above a certain threshold, alerting you that you should check the boat, perhaps by examining onboard network cameras remotely.
  • Your chart plotter or echo sounder could print a segment of the chart or display for reference on a network-attached printer. We often like to take segments of charts with us when we're out exploring in the dinghy. We can print chart segments using screen captures from our navigation software, but it's currently an inconvenient process. In the future, your chart plotter might simply have a "print" button!
  • You might configure your instruments to log certain data periodically to a computer or network-attached storage device. This logging would allow you to monitor such things as your house battery's charge/discharge behavior or a history of speed and fuel consumption.
  • Instrument manufacturers could offer software that would allow you to remotely view your instrument displays on any computer attached to the network (even ashore, if your boat's network is connected to the Internet).
  • In addition, the onboard wireless network might allow you to connect various instrument systems together without running wires between them. While there are already some wireless instrument systems available, they use proprietary wireless technologies that don't interoperate with other standard wireless networks.

These are just a few examples of what a network system that can interoperate with other Ethernet devices might provide. The possibilities are nearly limitless.
Meanwhile, NMEA's new standard, NMEA 2000, is based on a networking standard called "CAN" (controller area network) that has been used in automotive and factory automation environments for some time. "CAN bus" is used for the engine controls and displays on some new electronic diesels. NMEA 2000 and its underlying network technology, CAN, have some advantages over Ethernet in terms of network performance. Unfortunately, NMEA 2000 is not physically or protocol compatible with an Ethernet network, and there aren't any "bridges" between the two that I am aware of at the time of this writing. Some manufacturers' equipment, including Garmin's new 4000 and 5000 series chart plotters, have both Ethernet and NMEA 2000 interfaces, so these products may eventually provide a way to integrate NMEA 2000-based systems and Ethernet-based networks.

While equipment manufacturers are moving rapidly to use Ethernet and NMEA 2000 standard interfaces, the truly "open" system—where you can mix and match instruments with other network-connected computers and devices—isn't yet a reality. But I believe it's just a matter of time.