I’ve been writing about marine equipment long enough now that it takes an impressive product to stop me in my tracks. Yet that’s exactly what happened when I first encountered SiMON GOLD, Palladium’s fully integrated, all-glass bridge-control system, at the 2012 Marine Equipment and Trade Show (METS) in Amsterdam. This futuristic-looking bridge uses touch- and gesture-sensitive displays (and not a single visible mechanical switch) to control everything on board, from the autopilot and engine controls to sonar, instruments, cameras and onboard temperature. In fact, I was so impressed that, less than a month later, a tricked-out Mac Mini (Apple’s fully functional “silver-box” computer that’s the computing brains and brawn behind this elegant system) has found its way into my life, albeit for far more pedestrian purposes.
A small rewind. If you’ve ever seen the 2002 film The Minority Report, you’ve probably got a pretty good mental picture of the futuristic user interface (UI) and shipwide control that SiMON GOLD offers to discerning yacht owners. Michael Blake, Palladium’s president, longtime mariner and recreational pilot, said that the impetus for SiMON GOLD evolved from spending time at sea and in the air.
“I found a lot of disjointed UIs from different manufacturers,” Blake said about his time aboard. “This was unlike aircraft, and I wanted to create a system with a common UI across all devices.” Unfortunately for Blake, his vision of a unified helm station far outpaced the evolution of hardware. “Then,” he said, “Apple seeded the environment with touchscreen technology.”
Palladium was a beta tester for the original iPhone in 2007, and this relationship had a massive impact on how the Fort Lauderdale-based company would build its helm-control systems, starting with the original SiMON in 2008. Apple’s reliable operating system and user-friendly graphics gave Palladium a perfect platform on which to build SiMON GOLD. “It allowed us to explore reliability, simplicity and the elegance of graphics,” Blake said. This exploration resulted in a consolidated, fully customizable and easily expandable system that’s literally controlled by sleight of hand, rather than with chunky-looking analog switches or nonexpandable electric panels. “Hand gestures are a stepping stone toward greater communication with smart electronics.” Blake referred to a keyboard as a limiting tool. “With gestures,” he added, “we can achieve results much faster.”
Palladium custom-builds and scales each SiMON GOLD system to suit the client’s requirements. The configuration that I played with at METS featured five bonded-glass KEP touchscreen displays (three 27-inch vertical units and two 15-inch console-mounted ones), each tethered to a dedicated Mac Mini. Each of these computers (16 gigabytes of RAM and a lightning-fast SSD) directly controls the monitor to which it’s tethered. This silver-box computer is in turn controlled by two Schneider Electric programmable logic controllers, one of which processes input while the other runs the network. While the system is designed to run as a slave-and-master, with the console-mounted monitors being the initial masters, each Mac Mini is fully functional and autonomous, meaning that if the master fails a slave simply takes over. “It’s a peer-to-peer network,” Blake explained. “All computers are decision-makers and all are listening to the same conversation.” This approach makes expansion of the system a matter of simply bringing a new computer/panel on line. It also adds a lot of redundancy. “You can take an ax to it until the last Mac Mini is gone,” Blake said.
SiMON GOLD accepts Ethernet, serial and analog data from various systems and components (e.g., the engine), and it can be plugged into a bus to provide the bridge electronics with an NMEA 0183 data feed. The system also accepts data and commands from wireless devices via one or more Aruba wireless routers. “If you’re docking your vessel with an iPad, you need the ultimate level of [router] reliability,” Blake said, and cited a client’s yacht that operates with 38 iPads aboard. “If everything else on the bridge fails, you can control [SiMON GOLD] with a single iPad that can be talking to multiple Mac Minis.”
Although the system runs on Apple hardware, Blake is careful to explain that SiMON GOLD is a Unix-based system, making it a Mac/PC cross-platform product despite its physical DNA. “It’s not OS-dependent,” said Blake. “It will run on any [computer hardware]. It has a totally transparent source code. … It can create binaries that run on either PCs or Macs.” For users, this means that SiMON GOLD will run on third-party laptops, smartphones or tablets (including Google’s Android devices), as well as on Apple’s orchard of laptops and other devices.
This may seem hopelessly complicated, but SiMON GOLD’s ultraclean, glass-bridge presentation and silky-smooth UI will immediately extinguish any doubts about ease of use. To operate, a user simply drags, drops, touches and gestures on the console-mounted monitor(s) to build and use custom screen views for each of the vertical displays using set graphical templates. For example, a user could have engine controls displayed on one vertical screen, a radar/chart plotter/AIS overlay on another and camera views on a third. “You have the complete ability to drag and drop all screens,” Blake said. Palladium has created a variety of SiMON GOLD helms, ranging from a fairly streamlined system for a 30-foot state-of-the-art military vessel to a bridge for a 250-foot superyacht that employs seven vertical and four console-mounted displays.
All systems and equipment controls are cleanly routed through SiMON GOLD, which means that a user is no longer required to memorize a specific product’s operation manual (or even to touch the actual instrument/device). While this funneling ameliorates many of the headaches of commanding a fully loaded cruising yacht, it creates a situation of extreme dependence on SiMON GOLD. Because of this, Blake said, the system was designed with maximum redundancy. SiMON GOLD ultimately relies on electricity, just like all electronics. “If there’s no power, you’re back to rowing,” Blake said. “If you get hit by lightning, you’re in a world of hurt [no matter what]. You can’t even buy an engine without an electronic control — you can’t run a yacht without electricity.” Because of this potentially weak link, Palladium incorporates a flip-down “glove box” that contains emergency analog start-and-stop engine controls.
Given that the late Steve Jobs’ custom-built yacht was recently launched (at Holland’s Feadship yard), I couldn’t resist inquiring if SiMON GOLD was fitted aboard. “It’s not on [Venus],” Blake reported somewhat cagily, “at least not today.” As for my own foray into silver-box computing, my tricked-out Mac Mini is sitting on my bookshelf, plugged into a Sony stereo receiver. True, I’m at risk for having built the world’s fastest jukebox, but apps such as Remote and Air Display allow an iPad or iPhone to serve as a wireless monitor for the silver box. And while it’s sweet to wirelessly run Photoshop, Excel or flash-driven apps, programs or websites on the Mac Mini via an iPad, these are amateur-hour stunts compared with the level of control that SiMON GOLD provides. After all, docking a superyacht via a tablet is a way cooler party trick than queuing-up the next tune.
Palladium Technologies, 954-653-0630; http://palladiumtechs.com