Marine leisure market embraces wireless connectivity

The leisure marine communications and electronics market is seeing plenty of activity with the integration of different technologies and the advent of on-board wireless connectivity among the key changes affecting the sector, as James Atkinson discovers

Marine leisure market embraces wireless connectivity

Most sea-going vessels, and many operating on inland rivers and lakes, will feature some of the following technology: marine VHF radio and navigation products, including GPS and sometimes radar, multi-function display units (MFDs), automatic identification system (AIS) and increasingly Wi-Fi and broadband/satellite communications.

Sam Taylor-Nobbs, sales director at Icom UK, says: ‘The marine leisure market is the classic triangle. At the top are the super yachts and expensive boats, which require expensive pieces of equipment, while lower down the triangle you are selling cheaper equipment, but much more of it.’

Marine VHF radio
In terms of communications, the marine VHF radio is the voice lifeline no one should put to sea without. These radios operate on the frequency range between 156.0 and 162.0MHz with Channel 16 (156.8MHz) reserved for the international calling and distress channel.

A major change in the marine VHF radio market came with the arrival of digital selective calling (DSC), part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS). DSC uses Channel 70 (156.525MHz) to enable a user to transmit and receive digital messages, including ‘all ships’ and distress signals by just pressing a button on the radio.

DSC communicates the vessel’s ID or MMSI (maritime mobile service identification – a unique nine digit number), along with the time and location if linked to GPS.
‘Channel 16 is getting rammed, as that’s the nature of VHF and how it works; the more people there are using the channel, the less chance of hearing an emergency call, so DSC is a great aid to marine safety,’ points out Taylor-Nobbs.

There is a wide range of handheld and mounted radios available. Key manufacturers include Icom, Raymarine, Furuno, Simrad, Lowrence, Cobra and Entel. Most sizeable vessels are fitted with mounted radios, but handhelds are becoming increasingly popular for small boats, while bigger vessels will use them to distribute to their much larger crews.

‘People operating smaller day boats are using handheld radios with built-in GPS, which will give you a location if you don’t have a power source to run a GPS,’ says Taylor-Nobbs. ‘You can use a handheld radio as a navigational device, a radio and a DSC system.’

He adds: ‘When the first handheld GPS products came out everyone said the price will never go under £1,000, but now you can get one for £50-60. It was the same for handheld radios. You can get a DSC-enabled handheld for around £200 now and a non-DSC one for £140 and it will be a good quality one too.’

He points to the Icom IC-M23 as a good example of the company’s entry level handheld radio. ‘It’s often used on small day boats where you can just stuff the radio in a grab bag. But it is important to note that the cheapest radio is not always the best option for the low end of the market. Just because you are in a dinghy or using a jet ski does not mean you should go for a cheap radio.

‘If you are using a powerboat then the Icom IC-M35 or IC-M73 is a better option. They both have noise cancelling capabilities, so you can speak over the engine or wind noise,’ says Taylor-Nobbs. ‘Choosing the right radio is not always about price; it is about what features you need in a particular environment.’

Marine leisure users are not the only customers for VHF radios, as there is a sizeable market of commercial users out there too with taxi boat services in harbours, harbour-based businesses and the coastguard all using marine radios. ‘We sold 4,500 of the IC-M71 handhelds to the coastguard cliff rescue service,’ says Taylor-Nobbs.

Most people will, of course, take their mobile phones with them when using a boat these days, but it is worth noting that both the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and the British Marine Federation (BMF) insist sailors should not put to sea without a VHF radio.

Automatic Identification System
Another key development in maritime communications is AIS – a data system enabling ships to automatically transmit information relating to the vessel (or shore station) without human interaction. Most of the manufacturers mentioned above sell AIS systems either separately or integrated into other equipment.

Static data provided by AIS includes: MMSI code, vessel name, call sign, type of ship and GPS antenna position. Dynamic data includes: ship’s position, speed over ground, course over ground, UTC time and data, GPS antenna type (internal/external) and position accuracy.

This enables ports and shore stations to monitor and control traffic and aids vessels in collision avoidance. AIS products can be either just receivers or transponders.

AIS also enables vessels to automatically work out the time to closest point of approach and raise an alarm based on pre-set parameters if a potential collision is imminent. AIS information can also be overlaid onto mapping devices, so crews can see any AIS equipped vessel in a particular area.

Marine electronics
Examples of marine electronic devices include GPS receivers, auto pilots, wind instruments, depth sounders, navigation instruments, engine instruments and nautical chart plotters. Many of these marine sensors and display units can be linked together.

The standard protocol for this was developed by the US National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA). The first protocol to be developed was NMEA 0183 (based on a serial communication network) while the latest version is NMEA 2000, which is based on a controller area network (CAN Bus) similar to that used on road vehicles and fuel engines.

NMEA 2000 is a ‘plug-and-play’ data communications standard. It provides a central cable, or backbone, that allows any sensor to talk to any display unit or other device and enables products from different manufacturers to exchange data and work together. Some manufacturers have developed their own communication protocols based on NMEA 2000.

UK firm Raymarine offers its own proprietary cabling protocol called Sea Talk. ‘It is a faster bus based on the NMEA 2000 standard, which allows you to transmit data faster. We still run NMEA 0183, but more generally we now run NG [next generation] systems like NMEA 2000,’ says UK sales manager Ross Partridge.

‘We also run another network called Raynet, which is Ethernet based, for screen to screen transmission. The advantage is it’s faster than NMEA 2000, so you might have your instruments and autopilot linked together on NMEA 2000, but use Raynet to send larger files and graphics, such as 3D charting for contouring.’

Multi-Function Display Units
Raymarine targets the premium navigation market and is particularly strong in MFDs – or multi-function display units. ‘Products like plotters, or chart plotters as they used to be known, are now known as MFDs, which can morph into anything the user wants,’ says Partridge. ‘They have GPS built in, but some people might want to use it for engine control, instrumentation, radar – it just depends on want is required.’

Raymarine offers MFDs starting at around £500 and going all the way up to about £6,000. ‘Our A Series MFDs are entry level in terms of both size and price, but the great thing is that they run on the same software as the larger, more sophisticated MFDs. So, if you buy one of our small MFDs you can upgrade later on and they all work the same way,’ says Partridge.

Competition in this space comes mostly from the likes of Garmin (which came from a land-based, handheld GPS heritage) and the Navico brands of Simrad, B&G and Lowrence. Smaller competitors include the likes of NASA Marine Instruments and Standard Horizon.

Cameras and radars
Partridge says that radars are still a very popular sale for Raymarine. ‘AIS has taken away some radar sales, but one should never be used to replace the other,’ he cautions. ‘Not everyone has AIS for a start and rocks don’t use AIS either. A lot of day boaters just use AIS, but the standard 30-40ft yacht tends to go for radar. Certainly for long distance voyages you should have radar.’

One relatively new area for the marine market and Raymarine is on-board cameras. ‘The requests we get are far and wide in terms of the different reasons people want them,’ says Partridge. ‘Security, safety and general navigation hazard detection being the main ones.’

Raymarine has an advantage here in that it is owned by Flir, which has a wide range of cameras, including infra-red ones, in its portfolio. ‘On-board cameras are in the early adoption phase right now. It is becoming almost a standard feature for super yachts, but smaller vessels are now buying both handheld and fixed-mount cameras,’ says Partridge.

Mobile connectivity
However, the biggest trend in marine communications and electronics is the introduction of Wi-Fi and broadband technology, which is allowing mariners to connect navigation products and instrument readers to smartphones and tablets.

Companies such as Digital Yacht in the UK specialise in installing Wi-Fi on boats. Nick Heyes, CEO at the company, says: ‘You can connect your NMEA boat instrumentation system and distribute that data across the boat onto your iPad or Android tablet. You can mix boat data and navigation data; overlay instrument data and also weather data from the internet on top of a map. You can also display AIS data on your tablet and manipulate it.

‘Our Wi-Fi system can have a range of up to 5 to 7 miles. By using an Apple or Google app you get a simple interface between your boat data and the consumer products you probably already have. This helps people navigate – you can send data to your autopilot using wireless technology, for example,’ says Heyes.

The company’s WL510 Wi-Fi access system comprises a compact, DC-powered below deck mounted 600mW booster/modem and external, hi-gain (12dBm/15dBi) antenna with 10m (33ft) low loss LMR400 coax interconnect cable. This combination can give up to 4W ERP.

It allows boat owners to connect to Wi-Fi hot spots so that their onboard PCs or equipment can connect to the internet. With internet connectivity on board they can download the latest weather or chart updates, watch movies, listen to music as well as having a mobile office on board.

Alternatively, the WL510 can be connected to a router such as Digital Yacht’s iNavConnect or iNavHub and everyone on board can share the long range wireless internet connection.

Integrated Wi-Fi
However, an alternative route to providing wireless connectivity on board is to have it integrated into your MFD unit from the start. Partridge says: ‘All Raymarine MFDs are Wi-Fi enabled and can transmit to Android or iOS products, but they are not designed for internet browsing.

‘You can take control of the MFD and run it on your tablet via Wi-Fi with a 50-80ft range. The MFD price includes the Wi-Fi feature ready to run, so there is no need to install a separate Wi-Fi router.’

Furuno claims to be the first company to have put Wi-Fi into an MFD unit, although its main focus is the industrial/merchant marine market. Bruce Hardy, marketing manager at Furuno UK, says: ‘It’s useful to have wireless connectivity for remote displays and the spin off advantage is that a lot of marinas are putting in Wi-Fi hotspots, so you can download a weather forecast in the marina and overlay it on the chart display to give you a visually viewable weather forecast.’

But Hardy warns that it is not advisable to open up an MFD to the outside world and risk virus corruption and have to build firewalls. ‘The Wi-Fi connectivity is there to take data from very specific websites like weather forecasting sites,’ he says.

Wireless radar
Furuno scored another first in May this year when it launched the world’s first wireless LAN radar. The 1st Watch Wireless Radar (DRS4W) enables users who have downloaded the free Marine Radar app from the Apple iStore to view radar images on their iPad or iPhone. Up to two devices can be connected simultaneously.

Hardy explains the thinking behind the move. ‘If you take a marina with 8,000 yachts in it, no more than 5% will have radar. People with 30ft yachts don’t buy radars as the expense is in the display unit. But if you make a low cost radar and enable people to display the images on an iPad, you reduce the cost.

‘It is such a new idea it is taking time to penetrate the market, but more and more of this kind of thing is going on to tablets. Apple and Google have done all the hard work in developing the apps,’ says Hardy.

Wireless LAN radio
Another newly arrived wireless alternative that combines features from two-way radio, cellphones and Wi-Fi is Icom’s wireless LAN radio solution launched in August in the UK. It is an IP-based radio system with PTT (push-to-talk) capability, which uses the unlicensed bands in 2.4GHz and 5GHz, with connectivity provided by Wi-Fi access points.

While it was not conceived specifically for the marine market, Icom has been testing it out on a super yacht. ‘We had eight individual Wi-Fi networks installed for visitors, crew, deck hands, engineers, hostesses, etc – they loved it. It provides a way for a two-way radio specialist like Icom to get into the growing marine Wi-Fi market,’ says Taylor-Nobbs.

Wireless connectivity is clearly bringing a great deal of change to the marine leisure market. For example, UK specialist Channel 28 has been installing Hytera DMR Tier II two-way radio products on luxury yachts and some owners are even considering DMR Tier III trunking systems to get more channels.

Icom’s Taylor-Nobbs sums up: ‘Wi-Fi is the big thing and integration of different technologies – that’s what is happening in marine communications.’ Raymarine’s Partridge agrees: ‘Marine wireless products will increase without doubt as their reliability increases and the link ups to tablets will also rise.’


Commercial/merchant marine

The communications and marine electronics used by commercial and merchant marine markets are very largely dictated by regulations, which depend on the size of the vessel and what it is used for.

Icom’s Taylor-Nobbs says: ‘For example, certain radios have to be GMDSS approved and they may have to have as many as three radios on the bridge to handle an emergency situation.’

Wheelmark regulations make a lot of difference in this sector, according to Furuno’s Bruce Hardy, who points out that this also sucks in super yachts over 34m used for charter. They must all be fitted with Wheelmarked equipment.

Wheelmark is the test standard and type approval requirements for the outfitting of ships under the EU’s Marine Equipment Directive (MED). It covers life-saving appliances, fire protection, navigation, radio and marine pollution equipment among others.

Commercial vessels are fitted with products such as Furuno’s Voyager bridge system, which offers multifunction workstations with seamless display of radar/chart radar, ECDIS (electronic chart display and information system), conning (heading, pitch, roll, speed, wind speed, thrusters, pitch etc), AIS, sonar, voyage data recorder and alert management system data.

Hardy says the advantage of products such as ECDIS is that they greatly enhance vessel route management, as you can bring in weather data, or key in a minimum acceptable draft – the ECDIS will reject the projected route if it detects that the water will not be deep enough for the vessel at some point along the route.

If a vessel is fitted with two ECDIS units to provide redundancy you can also dispense with paper charts. ‘That does tie back into the advantages of having VSAT technology,’ says Hardy. ‘The charting authorities provide regular updates on navigation hazards, such as a new wreck or a buoy being moved. This information would traditionally be sent out in an envelope to be picked up once the vessel has docked and the navigator would mark all the changes up on his paper charts.
‘But now it comes as an electronic version: once a week VSAT sends the update to the vessel’s ECDIS and updates the electronic charts automatically, so that’s where VSAT broadband communications is becoming much more important.

‘Other aspects such as engine management, crewing, spare parts management, and asset tracking are all hanging off VSAT now for commercial and merchant marine. The leisure marine market is interesting and very cost driven, so whoever can provide connectivity at affordable prices may bring in this kind of change,’ says Hardy.

Bluewater sailing

Communications for ocean crossings usually involve the addition of a high frequency single-sideband (HF/SSB) radio and/or a satellite phone. ‘The big demand for ocean going sailors is voice – hence satellite phones,’ says Furuno’s Bruce Hardy.

‘If you are crossing an ocean you have to have an SSB, but you don’t necessarily use it. Crews like to leave it on and hear the chatter. The advantage of an SSB radio is that unlike a satellite phone you can talk to many people,’ says Icom’s Sam Taylor-Nobbs. ‘You can get basic emails using SSB, but it’s like the old days of the internet with very slow download speeds. That’s where you need satellite.’

A UK company like MailASail, for example, offers satellite phones and airtime plans. Its Iridium satellite phone packages start at £799 and go up to £1,599, plus up to £399 for the antenna and cabling and then you add the airtime plan on top.

Its Inmarsat Sailor FleetBroadband packages start at £3,999 rising to £11,999 for its top package, which provides nearly three times faster data speeds and an expanded coverage area.

The choice here is between Inmarsat’s BGAN (broadband global area network) and the various VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite technology providers. Furuno offers both types, although its main market is the commercial marine sector.

Hardy says: ‘When you look at BGAN and VSAT all the growth now is very VSAT orientated. Speed was the issue. You can now get 1Mb for a reasonable price; the fishing industry has really adopted it, as has the commercial sector. With VSAT you have a fixed cost; you buy a contention ratio you can live with and for a fixed monthly cost you get as much data as you want at that speed.’

Generally speaking, the choice of satellite system all depends on how much data you expect to send or receive and how many concurrent users there will be. BGAN is more suited to single or small teams of users with only sporadic usage patterns for applications such as email, small file transfers or short term video broadcasts.
VSAT is better suited for large organisations with a wide variety of applications and high data throughputs. Here, the traditional Ku band VSAT market is being challenged by new, cheaper Ka band services (Inmarsat has one in the works).

‘The VSAT guys have slightly more mature technology than BGAN and have transponders on board. Ku band prices will drop to meet new Ka band services, so maybe Ku band will become significantly cheap enough to attract the leisure market – and if you are sailing beyond GSM range it makes sense to have it,’ says Hardy.

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