The first time I went boating with an iPhone was an epiphany. I was running a cartography app that used the smartphone’s GPS — not the boat’s network — to provide my own private navigation data, including position, speed and course information. Forty-eight hours later, however, I cruised into the downside of smartphone-based navigation: My last reception bar slipped astern. I spent the next few days pondering ways to access the boat’s data via my phone, but back then, doing so was a pipe dream.
Today, Signal K is poised to solve this problem while offering other advantages to tech-savvy boaters.
To understand Signal K, it helps to think of your yacht as a floating, closed-loop information platform. All sensors, instrumentation and autopilots are networked via NMEA 0183, NMEA 2000 (N2K) or proprietary data backbones. Vessel data can sometimes be shared with proprietary (or compatible) apps via a yacht’s Wi-Fi router, but exporting this information is difficult. NMEA 0183 and N2K were created before the advent of wireless devices and cloud computing, and they don’t package data in an Internet-friendly format. Moreover, manufacturers of MFDs and such typically use proprietary formats for data that’s wirelessly shared, compounding the problem for boaters who want to share their vessel’s data with third-party apps, the Internet, cloud services or other boaters.
Because of this limitation, an international group of marine electronics gurus including Tim Mathews, Fabian Tollenaar, Kees Verruijt, Robert Huitema and Teppo Kurki began collaborating in 2013 on an open-source protocol. “We designed Signal K to be this new common communication method, and we made it open source so that no one could ‘own’ it, but everyone could use it and contribute improvements,” Mathews says.
Critically, Signal K will also provide the tools that developers need to create next-generation apps. This past May, the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) officially acknowledged Signal K with this statement on its website: “NMEA will recognize [Signal K] through the means of a NMEA 2000-certified gateway as it does for all other protocols. Signal K developers will need to use a NMEA 2000-certified and firewalled gateway for the physical interface — either stand-alone or built within a display.”
To output data into a brand-agnostic, Internet-friendly format, an NMEA-certified and firewalled gateway needs to be networked to the yacht’s data backbone and configured to talk to a tiny, dedicated-server computer. Once networked, the gateway “decodes” NMEA 0183, N2K or proprietary-network data and shares it with the server computer, which bundles it into an Internet-friendly, common-platform format that can be displayed in web browsers as charts, gauges or graphs. User-selected information is then shared locally, via Wi-Fi, and with the Internet via boater-friendly uplink options including marina- and shore-based Wi-Fi hot spots, cellular modems or satcomms domes.
The result — once NMEA-certified and firewalled Signal K gateways become available — will be a massive leap toward sharing real-time vessel data. And Signal K is open source, so it can be updated and expanded to include new technologies.
“Signal K will provide an open platform for innovation,” Mathews says. “Internet cloud-based applications will flourish, especially in the areas of monitoring and crowdsourcing.”
For boaters, the potential upsides are huge. For starters, we will be free to select the best software for sampling, analyzing and displaying our vessel’s data, rather than being limited by a hardware manufacturer’s proprietary or compatible offerings.
Moreover, data packaged in an open-source, common-platform format can be used by cloud-based monitoring services (engine monitoring and maintenance) to help ensure incident-free boating, while letting owners remotely monitor a vessel’s status via the Internet.
Because Signal K can store a wealth of other data, including MMSI numbers, crew lists, cruising itineraries and notes, this information could be shared with rally or regatta organizers, marina operators (see sidebar) or possibly even search-and-rescue authorities.
Signal K also works as a firewall-protected, peer-to-peer network, so boaters will be able to drag and drop waypoints, routes and other social-boating data onto a friend’s MFD or tablet. Soon, apps, clouds and wireless devices will likely play even bigger onboard roles.
Signal K developers envision a world where commodity-level tablets replace niche-built MFDs. Marine electronics manufacturers will focus on instrumentation, while developers will create an array of common-platform applications.
Still, MFDs are far from foundering within the Signal K ecosystem. As Mathews says: “In effect, Wi-Fi-enabled MFDs are already gateways. They just don’t speak Signal K, so software updates to support Signal K are a possibility.” According to Mathews, at least one major marine electronics manufacturer is planning gateway support for Signal K. Others are expected to follow, likely in 2016 or 2017. Once this happens, boaters can expect a revolution in marine-specific apps, irrespective of how far from shore — and from cellular service — we might cruise.