Written by Ben Ellison on Nov 23, 2014 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub
When I mentioned strong contenders for the 2014 DAME electronics award, one I had in mind was the SeaPilot Vector Compact GPS Compass. Yes, in many ways it's just another GPS compass, but it's substantially smaller, substantially less expensive, and the design seems suited to good performance on many types of boats. Before getting into the details, though, let's deal with possible brand confusion. While True Heading, parent of the recreational SeaPilot brand, has been selling Vector GPS Compasses in Europe for some time, the core technology comes from Hemisphere and similar compasses are sold by ComNav, Si-Tex and others. The Vector Compact is not only a new model but is also much more exclusive to True Heading, which has recently expanded to North America.
For other metric-impaired old Yankees like me, the Vector Compact is about 10 inches long, 5 inches wide, and weighs less than a pound -- the "world's smallest" by a lot. It can be pole mounted as shown in the press release, but it can also be surface mounted, in which case it's only 1.6 inches high. And cabin top mounting may be more possible with this particular GPS compass due to the Vector line's ability to overcome multipath issues. The reason you often see GPS compasses mounted at the highest point on a vessel -- where you might want to place a navigation camera, lightning inhibitor and other gear instead -- is because the technology for deriving heading from two nearby GPS receivers is quite sensitive to multipathing. I experienced this with the Furuno SC30 I tested years ago; it delivered the fastest, most accurate heading info I've ever seen -- plus good GPS data -- but when mounted on the aft cabin top, it would sometimes give up on Heading altogether, apparently confused by GPS reflections coming off the antenna mast. Hemisphere claims "enhanced multipath mitigation" and Anders Bergstrom of True Heading says the Vector Compact not only worked in a forest of masts but even under the cabin top of his fiberglass sailboat.
The NMEA 2000 version of the Vector Compact retails for $999, and its single N2K port provides power while outputting fast Heading, Pitch, Roll and GPS data. The NMEA 0183 version also cost $999, but it's another $149 for the 15 meter cable needed to wire power and its two 0183 ports, which can be set up independently as shown in the screen above. Both versions of the device include an internal gyro that quickens the startup process, smooths heading output, and enables about three minutes of accurate "coasting" when passing under a bridge or a similar situation where GPS signals are temporarily lost.
Is there any downside to a truly compact GPS compass at about half the cost of existing models? Well, the Vector Compact's heading accuracy is only rated at "better than 2 degrees (RMS)," while the Vector Carbon is 0.75 degrees, the Vector MKII 0.3 degrees, and the Furuno SC30 1.0 degrees. The Compact's pitch and roll accuracy is 1.5 degrees and its GPS is good to 20 inches with 95% confidence if SBAS/WAAS corrections are being applied. All the specs sound good enough to me, and I look forward to testing one, especially given that no compass calibration is needed and a magnetic object put in the wrong place isn't going to mess up radar overlays, autopilot, etc.
Detailed information on the Vector Compact GPS Compass is coming to the new us.seapilot website soon, but check out what's there now. Front and center is a new U.S. version of the Seapilot app I first tried in Sweden. The U.S. version has the same rich feature set the European version does -- that's why I had to cut'n'paste to get the whole main Settings menu onto the screenshot collage above -- but of course the official S57 vector chart data comes from NOAA. Seapilot prides itself on displaying S57 charts to the professional standard, and you can see some of the controls in the right most menu. One detail still needed, I think, is a Units choice to change depth readings from Meters to Feet, but otherwise I found the charts quite usable.
I also like Seapilot routing, and one neat detail that you can't see on the screens above is how a waypoint you're creating or editing is not directly under your fingertip but about a half inch above it, so you can see exactly where it is on the chart. And of course AIS is well supported in Seapilot as that's True Heading's main business. The app can display targets coming from either the Internet or an onboard AIS or both, and it can even be used to manage a Seapilot AIS transceiver, as suggested on the lower left screen. The Internet AIS, which is sourced from several services, doesn't quite have the coverage of Marine Traffic right now, but it's not bad, and Bergstrom promises improvements. Seapilot is also one of the few charting apps that can scale AIS targets when you zoom into them, but note that the Lauderdale megayacht dock scene below right does illustrate how that can get messy (unless all vessels displayed have a heading sensor active when stopped and have properly entered dimensions relative to the AIS GPS position).
The Seapilot app is priced in à la carte fashion and will probably be free with the Seapilot AIS devices once the whole plan rolls out. True Heading and their Seapilot recreational brand are on the move. They exhibited at the NMEA Conference, they gave AIS seminars durings the Fort Lauderdale Show, they're putting together a U.S. distribution and tech support center, and they're looking for more sales reps and more dealer/installers. I'm glad to have them here.