Predicting the future of marine electronics isn’t easy, but these four men are paid to do exactly that. Here’s a look at trends that are likely to be influential during the next five years, from the minds of Dave Dunn, Garmin’s director of sales and marketing for marine; Knut Frostad, CEO of Navico; Eric Kunz, Furuno’s senior product manager; and Jim McGowan, Raymarine’s Americas marketing manager. (Their words have been slightly edited for space and clarity.)
Q: Which consumer electronics trends are likely to affect marine electronics?
A: Dunn: Connectivity and integration. There’s more desire for third-party companies integrating with multifunction displays, and there’s more expectation from customers. I think there will be more boats without buttons and switches, as well as more digital-switching systems.
A: Frostad: Consumer electronics are starting to have a good learning experience. 2020 has been an amazing year for attracting new boaters, but it requires the user experience to be more educational. Voice assistance is becoming big on land. I think there will be more integration with phones and watches. On land, everything has a low-power mode to lower consumption—I think that’s where we’re going with marine.
A: Kunz: I think we’re going to see more control of the vessel and its onboard systems through multifunction displays. We’re going to see new sensors that produce more-accurate information at lower costs. For example, GPS III. I also think there will be more automation between handheld devices and the boat.
A: McGowan: The No. 1 thing I see is connectivity. Everything is connected in a house—temperature, music and security—and the demand is there to do that on boats. Getting to a mass-market solution is going to be key. All levels of vessel monitoring and niceties—turning on lights, engines, and AC and climate control—will be done through mobile devices.
Q: How important will artificial intelligence be?
A: Dunn: We’re seeing more and more augmented reality, and I think that will become more prominent. With AI, it’s hard to say; there are so many variables at sea. I don’t think it will be a prominent feature in the next five years. With 5G networks, you’ll be able to get better weather services from your phone, so maybe there will be better predictive routes with autoguidance, for example, if you go to the same places every weekend.
A: Frostad: Boats are suited to AI because there are a lot of variables that are hard to follow manually. For example, intelligent radar, where the system interprets the image: AI could separate the echoes and create an optimal route, in combination with the autopilot. Finding fish is another possibility. We’re going to use AI to improve the boating experience. For example, we could use machine learning to see how customers use their boats, so when they switch on the battery, the system turns on the boat the way they normally use it.
A: Kunz: I don’t see AI playing a big role in the next five years. But augmented reality, which combines different technologies to improve and automate situational awareness—say, by combining the functions of video, GPS and other sensors in ways that we weren’t able to do before—we’ll do that in the next five years.
A: McGowan: I think it will explode. We’re seeing the beginning with machine vision and advanced processing. It’s not quite AI, but the next logical step is for cameras to identify objects. It’s fair to call machine vision a learning system—it’s got a built-up knowledge base. We’re seeing it in automotive with pedestrian and animal detection and collision avoidance. The marine environment is a good place to develop that kind of technology; there’s a lot of water and not much else.
Q: Will the next breakthroughs be software-driven? Or will hardware and software development remain hand in hand?
A: Dunn: We’ll see faster multifunction-display processors, but the glass will look pretty much the same. Maybe there will be larger screens, but I think the major changes will be software-driven. Everything that we’re developing now for the next five years can run on today’s multifunction displays.
A: Frostad: They’re linked. The more you want to do, the more processor speed you need. We need to innovate quicker, but we can’t launch hardware like iPhones—we don’t have the scale. We’re still in the phase of bigger screens and super-wide format, which has great benefits. Higher-resolution screens mean more details, and details matter. The hardware will improve the user experience, but the software makes the experience better.
A: Kunz: I think it will be hand in hand. Today’s multifunction displays have the power that personal computers had just a few years ago. They’ve got gigabytes of memory, they’re robust, and they’re a dedicated and isolated platform, so they’re hard to hack. I think we’ll see things such as integrating different sensors, say, for personal bathymetric generation.
A: McGowan: I think they’ll remain hand in hand. Memory and processing have gotten cheap, but the software keeps getting more complicated. Companies will need to add processing power to keep it fast. No one likes waiting for a screen to populate—it’s got to be snappy. And when you add AI and internet connectivity, you’ll need horsepower.
Q: Will autonomous vessel operations become important? If so, will electronics or engine manufacturers supply the technology?
A: Dunn: It will absolutely be a big part of the marine-electronics market, likely sooner than later. For example, you’ll see more autodocking capabilities.
A: Frostad: I think marine-electronics manufacturers will provide the user interface through the multifunction display. With autonomous boats, the first step is to assist and not take over. On land, Tesla parks the car on a flat surface. Docking a boat, there are so many types of docks; there can be waves, tide, current and wind. So, we want to complement the user. And it’s not going to be cheap. There are 3,000 boat models, so we’ll need algorithms for each boat.
A: Kunz: Marine-electronics manufacturers will make the sensors, while other companies will make things like thermal and visual cameras and integrate them. There’s a push for engine manufacturers to produce systems that allow marine-electronics companies to control the vessel, but I think it will be a combination of companies.
A: McGowan: Five years from now, I expect a high level of integration between engine manufacturers and anyone they allow to control their engines. This won’t be a DIY kit—engine manufacturers are meticulous about testing third-party electronics on their engines. Engine manufacturers probably don’t have all the expertise; they’re looking for technology partners. Whose name is on it will likely be a business negotiation. Engine manufacturers make great products, but sensing and controls will likely come from the electronics and adjacent markets.
Q: How important will 5G cellular and low- and medium-Earth-orbit satellite networks be?
A: Dunn: It’s hard to say. I don’t think there will be any negative impacts. There’s been a lot written on 5G blocking GPS, but we don’t think it will have any adverse impact. I think there will be more real-time weather streaming and live fuel prices without dedicated communication antennas. There are a lot of green-pasture ideas. I think 5G will give us a lot more options and tools.
A: Frostad: My expectation is that few 5G providers will turn their antennas to the sea, and I expect even shorter ranges with 5G than with 4G. Will medium- and low-Earth-orbit satellites be the answer? Maybe. I haven’t seen Starlink’s prices, but they’ll have the capacity to provide speed and bandwidth offshore. 5G will have an impact, but if a boater is only in range 90 percent of the time, we can’t provide an always-on service. Starlink is interesting because it’s always on.
A: Kunz: These technologies will revolutionize connected boats. Current satellite-communications systems are expensive and bulky. Starlink antennas are 18 inches. I think it will change the way boats interact. Bandwidth will suddenly be available to do things that we haven’t thought of yet. For example, open-ocean AIS and real-time weather that’s sent directly to the multifunction display.
A: McGowan: It’s going to be key to have cheap, fast connectivity everywhere. That’s the biggest shortcoming right now. In a bay, 4G is pretty good, but in coastal waters, you can’t depend on it. Also, if you want to stream, there are data caps and slowdowns, so 5G could be the answer. When low-Earth-orbit satellite networks come online, they’ll be a game-changer. Satcom on low-Earth-orbit networks will be low cost compared to current solutions.
Q: Anything else?
A: Dunn: We’ll see the gap between consumer electronics and marine electronics close faster than ever before, and that’s extremely exciting.
A: Frostad: Twenty years ago, the attitude was, “Don’t touch the nav system,” but now kids see a touchscreen and want to play. Instead of just making electronics more advanced, we want to make them more inclusive. Think of modern TVs: They’re easy to navigate, and we want that user experience on the boat.
A: Kunz: I could see the rise of disruptive technologies—for example, Starlink. I think there will be streamlined navigation systems and increased safety, and I think multifunction displays as glass bridges will continue to evolve. I think there will also be predictive failure analysis, monitored through the multifunction display, where, for example, engines are connected to the internet.
A: McGowan: Connectivity is key to a lot of these questions, but with machine vision and AI, we’re only scratching the surface.