See into the Future of Navigation

Three trends in marine electronics point to the future of navigation.

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You may have noticed a change in marine electronics recently, whether from using your boat's new setup or seeing an array on someone else's yacht. A graph depicting the development of marine electronics would probably show a steady climb over many years, coinciding with the quiet progression of improvements. This gentle rise would be punctuated by upward spikes-signifying an occasional Wow, look at that!

These high points would represent a singular innovative product or technology that sets a new standard all manufacturers will want to meet. If the manufacturers' instinct is correct, the investment in research and development to incorporate this technology will be worth it, and even more manufacturers will follow. Thus the trend is born. The value of looking at trends is that we can speculate on where things may be headed.

Trend No. 1: The Greatness of Integration

This year's widely acknowledged wows include major improvements in radar-especially in the ability of multifunction displays to integrate nautical, bathymetric, radar, and satellite information to create an allencompassing real-time image of the navigation situation. Now all the data is not just shown on one display on split screens, it's all shown in one screen "window" with all the data overlaid and relative. It puts together the pieces so the helmsman doesn't have to spend valuable time determining what radar target represents what. Raster charts, 3-D bathymetrics, and aerial or satellite photography work in conjunction with adjustable viewing angles to make for user-friendly electronic navigation. Some Simrad units offer Photo Blending, a tuneable function that allows the user to set the mixing grade between a photo and a navigation chart.

Additionally, hardware and software improvements enable the latest chart plotters to store the complete U.S. chart library in memory. Some systems can update the charts through an Internet connection, assuring that the navigation information you're using contains the latest Notices To Mariners information, an obvious boon to long-range cruisers.

Higher speed processors, internal chart data storage, and new software improves the on-screen image by "quilting" individual charts into an uninterrupted, continuous chart image. The most dramatic chart display advance can be seen in Furuno's NavNet 3D system with TimeZero technology to eliminate the screen redraw, instead presenting an uninterrupted, seamless flow of information to assure safe, stress-free navigation, even in challenging environments.

Trend No. 2: Processing Makes Perfect

****The latest digital radar systems from Furuno, Raymarine, and Garmin owe their amazing progress mostly to the use of digital signal processing (DSP), which optimizes the data content of the radar signals reflected back to the system's antenna from the target scene. Previous digital radars used analog circuits to control the way in which the received signals were managed, to discriminate between signals that were the result of random reflections of the radar beam from waves and rain and those that, although weak and possibly intermittent, represented real targets. Raymarine's use of DSP (also being used by Furuno and Garmin and pioneered by Raymarine in fishfinders some years ago) enables their digital radar to recognize signal patterns that represent real targets and present them as clear, sharp screen images while discarding the confusing noise signals that would otherwise obscure the targets. Unlike analog signal processing where a single data management decision must be used for the successive flow of incoming information, the DSP method continually optimizes the data-processing decision, extracting the maximum amount of information from each received signal stream.

The microprocessor-supported digital technology used in new radars process the whole signal, automating the initial and recurrent setup and adjustment process. This means that the radar will perform at its best for all users. The performance of these new radars in collision avoidance, radar's most important application, is greatly enhanced by their availability to provide true dual-range scanning, using the optimum pulse length for each range. The result is the equivalent of operating two separate radar sets, each tuned to the range needed to provide optimum situational awareness. The performance of previous dual-range sets was compromised by the need to operate at a common pulse length for both ranges. Another nice add-on, AIS offers critical target information displayed on the radar and chartplotter image. AIS stands for Automatic Identification System and it is a technology that automatically shares vessel and heading information with enabled boats in the area. Although not an inherent part of the radar, this feature contributes significantly to a reduction in the incidence of close encounters of the worst kind.

Trend No. 3: The Way We See It

If you think about it, a good chart plotter presents the navigator with a multi-dimensional, synthetic view of the world. The closer it gets to showing what can be seen through the pilothouse window on a clear day, the more valuable it becomes. The ultimate plotter would present a synthetic view indistinguishable from the real scene. We are not there yet, but what you will see when using Furuno's NavNet 3D chartplotter will convince you that we are getting close. The system introduces a new three-dimensional, integrated display of nautical charts, bathymetric data, radar information, and satellite images. Combined with an unlimited screen image pan and zoom capability that eliminates the traditional screen redraw interruption, this Google Earth-like presentation will be the target of all other high-end marine electronics manufacturers.

This system also presents an important advance by reducing the system-management workload. The user interface follows the path pioneered in some of the chart plotter software designed for use on the Macintosh computer, minimizing the need to work with layers of tabulated pull-down menus. Furuno's RotoKey control greatly simplifies the management of the overall navigation system. The TimeZero display eliminates the distracting pause for screen redraw, a valuable improvement especially when the navigation situation is challenging.

Touchscreen control interfaces now play an increasing role in marine electronics, especially in many of Garmin's chart plotters. If you haven't used one at the helm, you've no doubt seen them in retail store self-check-out and airline check-in kiosks. Touch-sensitive technology has reached the point where it is practical for use in the often harsh marine environment. Designers have recognized that the dimensions of the control command "spot" on the screen must be easily accessed even when the boat is in a seaway and the user's ability to hit the spot precisely is compromised by boat motion. The new systems can cope with gloved fingers and are not likely to be triggered by drops of water hitting the screen. The elimination of physical control switches also contributes to maximizing the space available for the display screen and at the same time makes it easier to environmentally seal the face of the chartplotter. Although they are small, in fact hand-held, the new Garmin Oregon GPS navigator and the Apple iPhone provide a clear demonstration of the usefulness and convenience of a properly executed touchscreen control system.

Display screen technology continues to evolve with the availability of ever-larger sizes, many with very narrow bezels that simplify multi-screen installations. While LCD screens dominate today's market, the recent introduction of the first organic light emitting diode (OLED) TV screens, albeit with small size (11-inch diagonal) and at a high price point ($2,500) presages the next likely display evolution. Unlike an LCD where each pixel functions as a shutter, controlling the intensity with which the viewer can see the screen backlight, each pixel in an OLED screen emits light, providing a very high contrast ratio that significantly improves the definition of the screen image. The fact that each pixel is emitting light, eliminating the need for a polarizing screen, makes the onscreen image visible from almost any angle with no change in color.

As we benefit from these latest technological developments we naturally-or perhaps greedily-ask, what's next? To a large degree, the next generation of marine electronics will consist of further improvements in what has already been made available, including a welcome decrease in the cost of the equipment. We will also see the introduction of integrated GPS e-Loran receiver modules that, when connected to chart plotters, will present a precise position fix, plus accurate true-north heading data, regardless of boat speed. Operating in a "chainless" mode, the receiver will utilize all of the e-Loran signals available, eliminating the need to select a group repetition interval. The value of GPS will be further improved with the addition of new satellites, availability of the Galileo and revitalized GLONASS system, and the availability of an additional L1 frequency for civilian users.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, stay tuned-things are getting better all the time.