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A slew of monitors, products connected to one another (the Internet of Things) and “smart” products launched recently promise to make all of our boating lives better. The general idea is that we’ll be able to monitor, well, everything and spot problems a whole lot sooner than in the past, saving us the trauma of missing out on a great weather weekend because of a busted boat.

Dan Harper, CEO of Siren Marine, knows more about these products than most boaters. Siren, which is based in Newport, Rhode Island, focuses on the type of connected technology that makes up the Internet of Things.

Harper says there are three tiers of boat monitoring and control that boaters need to understand. Think of these tiers as a three-layer cake.

The first layer is the boat monitor: a tried-and-true product for keeping an eye on critical parts of your boat (such as batteries, bilge pumps and the location of the vessel) and for receiving alerts if anything moves outside of predefined ranges. Examples of this layer are Boat Command, FloatHub and Boat Fix’s monitor.

Siren Marine’s ‘smart’ boat system raises the bar in vessel monitoring by now giving the user an ability to act remotely on technical issues as they arise.

Siren Marine’s ‘smart’ boat system raises the bar in vessel monitoring by now giving the user an ability to act remotely on technical issues as they arise.

The next layer is connected boat products, which are devices that build on the capabilities of the boat monitor—adding a good deal more systems to the mix, likely connecting to NMEA 2000, digital switching and other products aboard. Siren Marine’s MTC, GOST’s Apparition and Navico’s Naviop are all connected boat products.

The final layer is “smart” boat products, which take all of the information gathered in the previous layers and allow you or the system to take action based on that data. This last layer is just beginning to make it onto boats, through what’s known as the Internet of Things (connecting previously unconnected devices, like your fridge and your smartphone).

The CZone Contact 6 Plus system is one of several cost-effective solutions for digital control on the market today. 

The CZone Contact 6 Plus system is one of several cost-effective solutions for digital control on the market today. 

Now, for some practical examples. Let’s say your shore power connection failed, and as a result, your house batteries are no longer charging. A boat monitor would likely see your batteries decline below a threshold you’ve set, and would send you an email and a text message. A connected boat system would likely also be monitoring your shore power connection and let you know that it has failed, while tracking the charge on your house bank and alerting you again when the batteries get low. Meanwhile, a “smart” boat system would have all this information and the ability to do something about it. It could see that the shore power is out and that the batteries are low, and could see that there’s fuel in the tanks, and could start the generator to recharge the batteries before shutting the generator back down and continuing to monitor.

Here’s an example that’s front of mind for me. My family and I are getting ready to leave our boat for six weeks or so while we head home to Chicago. She is well monitored and will be carefully looked after by the marina, but I am still concerned about returning to a petri dish of mold and mildew. I’ll make a guess at the best compromise of humidity and temperature control balanced against using as little power as possible. But, I have multiple temperature and humidity monitors connected to my NMEA 2000 network, and it would sure be nice to be able to use those readings to adjust my air conditioning settings automatically, to minimize cost and mold. A “smart” boat system with an NMEA 2000-connected air conditioning system could do just that.

The author’s Siren Marine remote monitoring app.

The author’s Siren Marine remote monitoring app.

Brunswick Corp. is advertising Nautic-On as a welcome to “smart” boating. The brand has concentrated on batteries, bilge pumps and engines, partnering with boatbuilders to equip new boats and to alert dealers and builders when issues arise on board. Nautic-On aims to send marine service providers an automatic notification of any issues on board, so that if you experience a problem over the weekend, they can be ready to fix it on Monday. (I’ve tried the Nautic-On system on my own boat and think it’s ideal right now for new-boat installs, not retrofits.)

Boat Fix is another company taking a slightly different approach. It offers a monitor for batteries, bilge pumps, location, engine hours and theft sensors—but, in this era of complete automation, keeps a human touch in the process. For critical alerts, the boat owner and designated contacts receive a phone call. The company also has mechanics available by phone 24/7 to assist in diagnosing and resolving issues. The company’s CEO, Alastair Crawford, says 63 percent of the calls to mechanics end with the problem resolved.

So, where is this all going? My (cracked) crystal ball suggests that we should expect the pace of advancement to accelerate in the coming years. We will have a lot more data with almost every major system on the boat connected, either via NMEA 2000 or by IP (internet protocol). Once these connections are made, we will move past monitoring and alerting to “smart” systems.

Custom systems already allow some remote control of boat features; in the near future, we will be able to open a boat’s app, turn on the lights, turn down the air conditioning, start the gyrostabilizer, and get a report on the connected systems. And not just on high-end, custom boats.

I also expect more intelligent alerts. Today, we get an alert that the house battery bank has fallen below a preset threshold. But, in reality, this is the symptom of a problem somewhere else. Did the battery charger fail? Maybe a breaker tripped? With each of those systems connected, we will get the status of the breakers and measurements from the battery charger, and we will know exactly what the problem is, remotely.

Many insurance carriers offer discounts for boats equipped with qualifying boat monitors, so it’s possible that an investment in a current version of these systems will pay for itself over a few years. However, with the capabilities coming, the real payback will be in convenience, peace of mind and time savings.