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PCs to Bring Aboard

Today's PCs are built to take a beating. Tomorrow's search is for ways to help boaters do the same.

October 4, 2007
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Navy Seals have some pretty cool toys. Take their computers, built with extensive waterproofing and internal shock mounting to withstand any rigors they encounter. Luckily for recreational boaters, military technology has a way of trickling down the pipeline to, say, the hardened laptop fastened to your center console’s control panel.

Today’s marine computers can display chart data linked to a GPS one minute, then radar data about an incoming squall the next. The rugged hardware that protects such ever-evolving software has led to the growing popularity of PC-based integrated electronics for navigation and monitoring ship’s systems. PC-based systems account for only about 10 percent of comprehensive marine electronics installations today, but the share is expected to increase dramatically during the next few years. Si-Tex, Furuno and other major manufacturers have developed proprietary PC systems, and the potential advances in software are simply irresistible.

Still, manufacturers say the future of durability in the marine environment depends on more than making a tougher tube. Today’s super-rugged laptops, and some of their everyday siblings, can already withstand the harshest marine environments.

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The future of PC durability, according to industry insiders, is not in the computer itself. It’s in the way boaters use it.

HARDWARE ADVANCES

Today’s super-rugged laptops and minis get the full treatment. Argonaut, Promark and Getac make laptops that come with magnesium cases and shockproof, vibration-damped hard drives. Some have shock-mounted screens, sealed rubber keyboards and doors into the case-CD drive, floppy drive, etc.-sealed against water and dust.

This is the level of protection manufacturers have been striving toward for years: computers that can withstand the elements on an exposed flying bridge or in a cockpit. Such features are unnecessary, of course, in the air-conditioned pilothouse of a yacht, where the hardware used to construct the computers for marine application is generally identical to that in high-end laptop or desktop machines.

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Most experts agree that much of today’s standard computer hardware is rugged enough that it requires little modification or hardening for use in a pilothouse-type environment, but some manufacturers add an ounce of prevention wherever they can. Big Bay Technologies, for example, adds hot-melt glue to keep internal connector clamps firmly in place. Some manufacturers take advantage of today’s small, light PCs and mount the entire package in a shock- and vibration-absorbing housing. Nauticomp, Argonaut and other makers guard against corrosion with a vapor-deposited protective coating for circuit boards and connectors.

Of course, the need for an electrically clean supply of operating power is paramount, and manufacturers usually recommend 12-volt DC from the ship’s bus instead of the occasionally questionable quality of onboard generated 120-volt AC power. Some mobile computers, such as those used in the Vessel Traffic Information System on Tampa Bay, Florida, avoid the power and signal interconnect problem by operating from batteries and using a two-way, ultra-high frequency radio link to the remainder of the system.

All these advances of the recent past have led manufacturers to look beyond durability for the future of marine PC design. They now want to make it easier for you to use their products in the elements the hardware is built to withstand.

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INTERFACING: THE FUTURE

Odds are, when a killer wave crashes into your helm, you will have a tougher time continuing to function than your PC-based navigation equipment. Wind and rain can make it awfully tough to see dimly lighted display screens, or to keep your fingers from sliding across push-button controls that are themselves unaffected by the weather.

For this reason, experts do not expect a dramatic improvement in ruggedness and waterproofing in the short term. Demand simply isn’t there.

What boaters can look forward to, though, are changes in how we input data and otherwise manipulate our PCs.

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Voice command is an exciting possibility that could become a useful control tool, if engineers learn to deal with the changeable wide dynamic range of background noise on a boat. IBM, for one, has seen some success with ViaVoice for Windows software, which lets the user speak to a PC instead of typing into it.

Another interesting concept is the development of a control system based on the user’s eye movement. Some cameras track the user’s eye movement to determine the center of interest for auto-focus, and the military uses eye-position tracking to aim weapons. No marine electronics manufacturers are known to be working in this direction yet, but the possibilities are great. Until then, boaters will have to make use of today’s top technology, which is relatively old. Touch screens are common and can be attractive, but their often poor ability to reject glare from external light sources limits their use to the pilothouse. Their interference with the function of glare-reducing screens or coatings also makes their use problematic in many marine installations, especially if you want to read the screen in full sunlight.

A conventional mouse works well in applications where a relatively stable surface is adjacent to the monitor. Optical mice have eliminated many of the problems created by the inevitable accumulation of dirt on horizontal surfaces on a boat and the motion in a serious seaway.

Handheld remote keyboards that strap onto the user’s arm are another way to deal with the odd motions at sea, and a remote keyboard in your lap at the helm gives you a better-than-even chance of hitting the keys for which you’ve aimed.

All of these are useful advances in technology, of course, but we are fortunate to be traversing the marine electronics world at a time that gives us a choice of which road to take: the traditional, dedicated single or multi-purpose product, or the software-managed, computer-based system. As designers and engineers improve our ability to function as well as our machinery does in rough weather, the possibilities are limitless and fascinating.

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