Helm Integration

The world's top boatbuilders are focused on integration—making your helm more like your dashboard.

Imagine, if you will, being able to plot a course on your autopilot and walk away from the helm while an onboard computer analyzes GPS, sonar and radar readings and maneuvers your boat safely through narrow channels or past rocky coastlines to your final destination.

Think of being able to locate exactly where the fish are biting based on current conditions, such as time of day, water temperature and present location, simply by selecting a breed on your fishfinder.

Consider the notion of fully integrating new electronics components into your system more easily and affordably, thanks to plug-and-play technologies that utilize standard Ethernet connections and USB ports.

The world's leading powerboat and marine engine builders say all this and more will be possible and affordable for most boaters within a few years, thanks to a push toward fully integrated, computer-monitored marine electronics systems. Where once components such as chart plotters, GPS, sonar and engine monitoring systems worked independently, leaving the boater to analyze and respond to the information, new integrated systems will collectively monitor these functions-and react, simplifying boat operations and dramatically improving safety, boating industry executives said. Electronics integration also will tie together computers, video and audio components, connecting them via satellite to the Internet and to a host of pay-per-view and listener services.

This trend also will lead to vast improvements in interior design, industry executives said. For the first time, components will be built seamlessly into helm stations, offering an automobile-style look and feel. Indeed, advancements in automotive electronics integration and design during the past decade are driving these advancements in the pleasure boat business.

"The philosophy is that over time boats will become more like cars, in the sense that there's going to be a focus on a completely integrated product," said Irwin Jacobs, chairman of Genmar Holdings Inc., the world's largest powerboat builder. "People today are demanding the type of systems that you have on trucks and cars. Surveys show they want automotive feel and quality on their boats."

George Buckley, chairman and chief executive officer of Brunswick Corp., the world's largest powerboat and marine engine maker, took it a step further. The ultimate goal, he said, is to create an "enhanced boating experience in which the boater has all the information he needs for easy and safe boat operation at his fingertips.

"We wanted the person to be at one with the boat, by virtue of how we offered boat information to him, by way of the human interface of the boat," Buckley said. "We wanted it to feel like what a great automobile feels like."

Even better, no matter the size of the yacht, boat owners can expect to see a reduction in price.

Jacobs and other boating industry executives said the cost of these systems will decline dramatically during the next few years, eventually making them affordable and practical even for buyers of runabouts and center-console fishing boats. In fact, sources said fully integrated, computer-monitored marine electronics systems could be available, mainly as optional equipment, on the most basic boat models within three to five years.

Several factors have made this push toward integration possible, the first being huge computer technology advancements in the past decade. As we all know, computer crunching power has increased while the cost has declined precipitously. Meanwhile, boatbuilders have added more and more of what once were optional add-ons as standard features, requiring new and better ways to connect them.

Enter new serial bus systems designed for networking "intelligent" devices, as well as sensors and actuators, into a single system. Created for the auto industry, they can carry much more information than conventional wiring, are easier for manufacturers to install and allow for plug-and-play connections of additional electronics.

In a clear sign that electronics integration is about to take off, Brunswick acquired Acton, Massachusetts-based Northstar Technologies in December 2002 from CMC Electronics Inc. Northstar, a manufacturer of high-end navigational systems for commercial and recreational marine users, will operate as a unit of Brunswick's recently formed Brunswick New Technologies division. Heretofore, the vast majority of Northstar's business has been in the aftermarket. That will change as Northstar begins supplying systems to Brunswick's boat companies, which include Sea Ray, Bayliner, Maxum and Hatteras Yachts, to name a few. However, Northstar systems probably will be sold to non-Brunswick boatbuilders in the not too distant future, Buckley said.

Not to be outdone, Genmar unveiled its Integrated Vessel Systems initiative in January. It is a partnership among Genmar, marine engine maker Volvo Penta and Teleflex, Inc., one of the world's largest suppliers of marine controls. Genmar plans to introduce the first integrated electronics systems developed through the partnership in many of its 2004 models, including its Larson, Glastron, Four Winns and Seaswirl brands, Jacobs said. "The system will have additional features added over the next three years until it is fully integrated into all models from a 15-foot center-console fish boat to Carver Yachts, he said. The system will offer continuous monitoring of a variety of onboard systems, as well as automotive-style helm stations with analog gauges and LCD displays.

Jacobs said Integrated Vessel Systems also will tie into Genmar's First Mate satellite monitoring system. Introduced in June 2002, it was available on many 2003 Genmar brands. First Mate offers satellite global tracking and systems monitoring that let boaters give detailed engine diagnostic information to an operator. With the touch of a button, the system transmits diagnostic information so technicians can arrive on the scene with the proper tools.

While neither Buckley nor Jacobs would disclose future strategies for obvious competitive reasons, rest assured that more developments-and corporate acquisitions to support them-are forthcoming. As Jacobs puts it, manufacturers have only scratched the surface of what's possible.

"It's so 'Star Wars,' some of the stuff we have coming out in the next year," he said.