Boat Electronics: The Future as I’d Like to See It

I’m not sure how to title or approach this blog entry, but consider this as coming from the innovator/futurist part of my personality.

First, some background: I’ve been a working professional in the technology space for 15 or more years now. Most of my focus has been in and around systems architecture in mobile communication networks.

I’ll start by saying that some of what you’ll read in this entry is stuff I’ve been espousing privately for several years now. So many years later, it is more obvious now and less prediction than it was when I first had these thoughts. Recent press releases from Garmin and RayMarine seem to indicate that some of the manufactures are making tentative steps towards the direction I’m about to describe. As with most of my futurist type thinking, these thoughts are less about prediction – they are more about how I’d like to see things work in order to make using the technology easier and more cost effective for us all.

  1. Separation of Software and Hardware (Fish Finders/Graphs)
    1. Death of the Proprietary Head Unit
      1. Increased Modularity / Decreased Cost / Faster Product Evolution
        1. Apply ‘Internet of Things’ concept to boat itself
          1. Wireless Networking between components

What do I mean by bullet number one? I mean that there is a difference between the hardware needed to do the soundings, physically receive the signal returns and display the results. Then there is the software which actually interprets/processes the signal returns in ways that are meaningful for the user. The software also contains the Graphical User Interface that the users engage with to navigate all of the features contained within – I.e. adjust display settings, create waypoints, GPS mapping/navigation, display engine info, etc… Without going into a mind-numbing amount of detail describing current head unit and gauging technology, I’ll just describe my vision for how it should be in the near future, taking advantage of current personal tech trends.

Tablets everywhere…

Modern tablets such as Ipads and other brands contain way more processing power, memory, and other features such as cameras, microphones, accelerometers, GPS, etc… Much more than even the newest Fish Finder head units from any of the major manufactures. The chips in your average tablet are 3-5 generations ahead of the chips being used in the newest sonar/graphing unit. They are also thousands of dollars cheaper than a comparable sized head unit display screen. Think about it. You could have one or two Ipads/tablets on your boat acting as your boat’s head units. There’s really no limit to the number you could have actively displaying nav or sonar data on your boat – E.g. two on the console and two at the bow. You could have tablets all over the boat acting as your sonar and navigational displays. The only dependency is that the signal from the Sonar Transducers needs to be wirelessly transmitted to the software on your ipads or tablets. This would most likely be done via WiFi technology. This is, technically speaking, very easy for the major manufacturers to leverage in future product designs. Most of them already have some WiFi capabilities in their higher end products. While we’re at it, the major outboard manufacturers should add wifi to the motors themselves. This would allow the owners to download/display engine stats, alarms, etc…

So I’ll talk about what this would look like for ‘Joe Angler’ user… Joe would have a few newer tablets laying around. Joe goes out and buys advanced transducer(s) from his favorite vendor (I.e. Lowrance, Humminbird, Garmin, RayMarine, etc…) along with a special wifi enabled box/appliance that connects to the transducers. Joe installs the components. The box that connects the transducers can basically be mounted anywhere, so he mounts it up and out of the way in his boat’s bilge. Joe also purchase a few mounts for his tablets. A couple for the console and a couple for the bow. These mounts allow Joe to quickly move his tablets around to various positions on the boat – or has multiple tablets feed by the same ‘black box’ appliance. Once Joe has downloaded the latest version of the manufacturer’s Sonar & Nav software for his tablets, and interfaced it the component(s) installed on his boat, he’s ready to go. When he’s fishing, he can move one or more tablets to the bow area. Ideally, one could control most of a boats systems from a tablet, all the way down to the livewells. Keep in mind that these tablets do everything that the latest generation $3K+ headunit can do today, and then some. These tablets are portable, meaning that Joe can pop them off the mounts and carry them indoors with him, using them for other things.

To be fair, it is worth mentioning that today’s nav/finder head units are more visible in high sunlight conditions and far more resistant to temperature extremes and water. 

Think about it, instead of spending $2-3K per head unit that is arguably a permanent fixture on your boat (I.e. virtually useless outside of your boat), you could buy a couple of higher end tablets for $1200 bucks or less. If you are like me, you probably already have several tablets in your household. All you would need to do is download and install the appropriate software on your existing devices, which would and should include your smart-phone as well.

This should reduce costs to both you and the manufacturers of these products. They no longer have to focus on head unit hardware design, they just focus on software for your devices. They still have to produce transducers and the hardware appliance to run/interface with the transducers, but that is a lot less investment compared to redesigning head-units every few years.

Even if it plays out this way in the future, the manufacturers are still likely to charge you for all of the piece parts of this – transducers, network/ducer appliance, software licenses, but even then, the average consumer should still wind up with a significantly cheaper, more feature rich and flexible product than what is currently available.

Even further down the road, this software driven wirelessly networked mesh of modular components could be used in conjunction with user worn display and interface technology – think Google Glass or Oculus Rift type tech. I mean, why should you keep looking down at your graph/tablet display, when you could simply have the images digitally overlaid onto your current field of view – I.e. you are looking at a patch of water and the sonar data is blended with wherever you happen to be looking at the time.

Oh, and to all you boat manufacturers – it wouldn’t hurt to start wiring in multiple powered USB ports at key locations around the hull like the console and bow control clusters. I’m honestly surprised I’ve not already seen most manufacturers doing this already.

Another idea I had recently when looking at a video of Ranger’s new 2016 Z522D is this: Outboard manufactures should include a HP limiting feature on high horsepower engines – E.g. 250+HP outboards. The ranger in the video has a 300HP Evinrude G2 rigged. Engines producing more than 250HP are against the rules in most bass fishing tournament trails, but if you had a feature allowing you to limit the horsepower to 250, you could arguably run a bass boat with a 250+ HP motor in these 250HP limited trails. Granted, you would need some way to assure the tournament director that the boat was ‘locked’ to 250HP during the duration of the tournament, but that shouldn’t be hard, especially if one could display motor stats/history to the Tournament Director via phone or tablet on the fly. Not only would such a feature be useful to tournament fishermen, it could also provide an added measure of safety when the boat is to be piloted by less experienced captains – I.e. if one’s teenager is driving it… Such a feature might drive larger sales numbers of these high HP engines. This type of technology has been around in ‘supercars’ for a number of years.

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2 Responses to Boat Electronics: The Future as I’d Like to See It

  1. Ken Stone says:

    Cool post, you got my mind racing. I do think I would want a ruggedized tablet to use on the boat and other outdoor contexts. You could go wild with ideas for head-up display, integrating feedback of the image your eye is focused on with location, maps, and using the info to aim your instruments.

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