The Trade

Garmin demos: GPSMAP 8600, ForwardVu, Fantom, Virb XE, Quatix3 & more

15 Apr

Written by Ben Ellison on Apr 15, 2016 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub

Garmin_GPSMAP_8617_on_Contender_25_aPanbo.jpgAt this moment in time, the Garmin GPSMAP 8600 multifunction display announced in February may be the most powerful premium MFD available. That's the "little" 8617 model of the series above -- apparently now shipping at $7,500 retail -- and that Quatix 3 smart/fitness/boat watch is not trivial technology either. So even given two full days with four Garmin-loaded boats, I feel like I only grazed the surface of all that's going on. And frankly, the story is similar across the four major electronics brands and beyond. Next week, for instance, we hope to share some startling new features that may be coming to an MFD already on your boat. Today, though, let's look at some Garmin demo highlights...

Before we get into the details, a warning is in order. The modern marine multifunction display has so many possible functions -- plus Garmin is already integrating an ecology of its own portable gadgets (which the other brands may emulate via partnerships) -- that a boater may throw up his or her hands in confusion and exasperation. Please don't freak out; you generally only have to buy or use the devices, functions and features you want, and if they're designed right, they should be fairly easy to utilize.

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For instance, it only took a few Quatix 3 button pushes to get the watch into "Fish" mode -- though, my bad, the start icon is about halfway through the successful sailfishing afternoon that Adam gleefully covered -- and few more once we tied up. Fish mode, like many other "Activity" apps you can load into the watch, starts the GPS and brings up a couple of relevant data screens (I could record fish catches and set a tournament timer in this case). And, just like hikes and other activities I've recorded with the watch, the data automatically went up on my personal Garmin Connect website (above) and also to the Connect app on my phone.

It's true that Connect does not show the fish catch and times I recorded, and there's no way that any watch could figure out how many calories I burnt (or drank) on that mostly slow boat ride, but maybe that will be straightened out the next time I try Fish mode, because the apps and the watch update themselves automatically. And, yes, the boat's own GPS hit nearly 60 mph on our way back through the Miami cut, so that data looks spot on. Note that Fish mode and many other Quatix 3 features work without any other Garmin devices, but during the demos I was also able to see boat data like depth and water temperature on the watch and also use the Q3 to operate Garmin Virb XE cameras that were additionally networked to Garmin MFDs.

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Talk about connectivity - check out the backside of an 8600 MFD and also understand that these displays support both WiFi and ANT+ wireless protocols. Note that the four Ethernet ports make this MFD an able network switch and that the HDMI IN and USB ports mean that this display can show and control a touch command charting program running on an onboard PC (or any other PC program).

Also, HDMI IN and CVBS (analog) video are both encoded inside the 8600 and can thus go out on Ethernet. Finally, the SAE J1939 port means that many engines or engine networks can plug directly into an 8600 for gauge display and that the data can also be bridged to the NMEA 2000 network. In fact, we learned in Miami that this J1939 port will soon be included on new Garmin 7400/7600 MFDs (as a rolling change that will not effect prices but will get new part numbers).

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Here is the 8617 (seen in the top photo) imaging the Miami Harbor bottom with four different sonar modes emanating from a GSD 25 Premium Sonar Module and three different transducers (B175HW, GT51M, and Panoptix PS21-TM). Note that if you click this or the following screenshots bigger, what you'll see is actually 80% of the original 1,920 x 1,200 pixel screenshot (to keep the image download reasonable). Also note that while the 8600 series has no direct transducer ports, the somewhat less premium and less expensive GPSMAP 7616xsv can process all the sonar modes above with just the three transducers involved.

Adam already explained that the Panoptix transom transducer was temporarily mounted with a pole and suction cups for this demo, and the little boat icon upper right in the LiveVü Forward window shows how its internal heading sensor knows where it's pointing relative to the boat. Finally, note the distinct pole-like object seen on the left side of the SideVü window, because it's a day beacon that we used to test the new FrontVü collision and grounding avoidance view coming to Panoptix Forward looking sonar.

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Tada! There's the daybeacon seen 90 feet ahead of the transducer with FrontVü overlaid on LiveVü. The Garmin software is guesstimating solid objects -- bottom and steel beacon pole in this case -- very much like the Navico ForwardScan I've been long testing. FrontVü was impressive even in beta version with temporary mount, but I remain skeptical about the 300-foot claimed range, particularly in shallower water, and FrontVü won't be useful to cruisers until Garmin can figure out a through-hull transducer design (which I'm sure they're working on).

In the long term, though, I suspect that Panoptix-type technology may be the one that can finally see an awash container or deadhead in enough time for a fast skipper (or another algorithm?) to avoid it, and right now LiveVü seems capable of brightly painting a manatee or similar, no problem.

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Another of Garmin's many February announcements was BlueChart g2 HD Charts with Auto Guidance 3.0 and other enhancements. We only got a brief look at the new Auto Guidance, but it does seem able to handle narrow and complicated waters much like the impressive Navionics Dock-to-Dock (supposedly coming soon to Raymarine MFDs). On the screen above you can see how AG3 has calculated a route under the downtown Miami bridges and is also warning us about some submerged pilings ahead (why it didn't route around them I don't know).

Note how the route goes by the day beacon where we'd already tested FrontVü, as you can see not only by our track but also by the Quickdraw Contours feature discussed here last November. And there's Fantom doppler radar highlighting three vessels coming our way even while at fairly long range in the downtown mess (and spotting something like a convoy of semis headed away from us inland).

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This screen may be helpful as it shows G2 charting for the whole downtown area with the Contender 25 parked in its home slip where I later spent more time with the Fantom radar. Note that by this point I'd gotten the Panbo test Virb XE waterproof camera networked with the 8617 MFD. In fact, I made that connection on three different demo boats, and I think the Virb XE integration is even more sensational than when it first wowed me in Baltimore.

I've always liked how you can tap a Garmin chart, sonar, or radar window to full screen, but note how you can do the same with the camera view, thanks to that icon at the right end of the cam control bar. I'll have more on camera support below, but note, too, how you can get right to the autopilot menu from its control bar.

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Now -- sorry, Garmin, can't help myself -- I'll interrupt the screenshots to show a relevant example of the paper-like raster electronic charts that I'd love to see on these beautiful Garmin screens just like I can view them on many Furuno, Raymarine, B&G, and Simrad displays! I know that many boaters don't give a hoot about raster charts, and this one would definitely be harder to use with the text and soundings upside down, which is what you'd see if the display was in heading up mode like the screens above and below.

But, dang, aren't human cartographers usually better at clarifying for the boater important details in a complicated place like this? Honk if you want Garmin to add raster chart support, because I'm pretty sure they could display the freely available U.S. NOAA portfolio quite easily and maybe Garmin's chart department could even work with their international hydrographic office partners to include raster charts like C-Map has done with their 4-D Max (Raymarine Bahamas image here) and Max-N+ for Navico charting bundles.

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At any rate, here's a zoomed-in screen of the Sea Isle Marina and the low Venetian Causeway bridge (so nicely detailed on the raster chart). You can see that Quickdraw Contours presumes water depths right over charted piers and other objects just like the Navionics Boating app's SonarChart Live does. The big difference right now is that the underlying sonar logs get uploaded to Navionics and processed into the more rational SonarCharts that many Navionics users can download to the app or to a Freshest Data card that can display on many MFDs (this Navionics PDF includes Garmin MFDs, but there's big caveat to that).

The Garmin folks at the demo made no promises about future developments, hardly hinted at them in fact, but it seems very likely that Garmin will eventually let users upload and share the depth data they collect (if they want to). And the process will probably be smooth and easy.

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Hopefully, the charts will help you understand this Fantom radar screen taken while the Contender 25 was in its marina slip. It also happened to be low tide, so there were even taller obstructions very close by and extending all the way out to the 3/4 mile range I'd set. All the Doppler (MotionScope in Garmin speak) moving targets, for instance, are vehicles moving across the high bridge on the other side of the Venetian Causeway bridge and some of the AIS equipped vessels being targeted are beyond all that.

Now I'll admit that it's a bit odd to further test a new solid state Doppler radar like this, but it was blowing like stink, so most boats were staying put (like us) and the way Fantom handled the traffic on the bridge was amazing. The Contender's heading was almost perpendicular to the bridge, but just about every westbound truck or bus -- cars didn't show enough over the bridge's fixed guard rails -- tracked red and the eastbound ones tracked green. So at least at rest, Fantom is superb at separating possibly coming traffic from going away traffic and it can do it even in the midst of large fixed targets. No, we have not heard much about actual Fantom (or Furuno NXT) use at sea, but my expectations are high.

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On this screen the radar is still in 3/4 mile range, but I've used the 8617's multitouch screen to zoom in on the big bridge and the targets beyond. I'm not sure I've seen that radar viewing capability before and it seemed useful, especially since you just tap the Stop Panning button to go back to normal. If I had managed to capture the AIS info we tapped onto the screen, you'd see that the vessel was Mark Cuban's 288 foot Fountainhead which was tied up to the new Island Gardens megayacht marina on the west side of Watson Island. That's a big target, but still the Fantom was picking it up from a low mount on the 25-foot center console and either through or over the huge concrete bridge supports.

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Talking about huge, Garmin is now up to 11,600 employees according to a presentation we received, and a lot of those are engineers. I believe that's a bit scary to the marine electronics competition, but then again marine is still a very small part of what the company does, and Garmin no doubt feels small compared to, say, Apple and Google.

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Back to the screens, here's one showing all the possible window layouts on the 8400/8600 series and this vast choice may also extent to the 7400/7600 series. (Garmin shoppers should be especially careful about feature presumptions these days, because the company has been changing up its underlying marine operating system -- in fact, the premium 8600 runs Linux -- and that makes backward compatibility harder.)

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Combine all those window layouts with the ability to change the window split lines (and the ability to tap a window full size I mentioned), and you should be able to build favorite screens that are very functional, even on a mega-multifunctional display. I was building this screen and about to put a video source in that third window when I realized that this 8600 series can network analog and HDMI video all around a boat. That's darn impressive in itself, but actually I was looking for the special Virb X/XE window type that can show and control one to five wireless cams!

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I will do full reviews of the Quatix 3 and Virb XE eventually, but here's what I think after fairly extensive testing: Once users realize what's possible with these boat "accessories" from other Garmin departments and how easy they are to integrate with Garmin marine electronics, they are going to be quite popular. But there's also an opportunity for the competition here, because what Garmin probably won't do is to integrate with devices like Pebble smartwatches and GoPro cameras.

Yes, I'm pretty sure things are going to get more complicated faster, and we've barely touched on the online integration part. Please don't freak out, and do hopefully enjoy a short video demonstrating how the Virb XE can integrate boat data with what it collects itself:

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Flash: C-Map and Navico become sister companies

16 Mar
Written by Ben Ellison on Mar 16, 2016 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub Here's some big news in the small world of marine electronics. Boeing company Jeppesen just sold its marine cartography division to a formerly unknown ent... Read More

NMEA 2015: FLIR, Shakespeare, Humminbird, Lumishore, Intellian, Nobeltec & more

20 Oct

Written by Ben Ellison on Oct 20, 2015 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub

NMEA_2015_Signal_K_cPanbo.jpgWhile the big manufacturers showed off some great stuff at the NMEA 2015 Conference, there was also a lot to get excited about in the seminars and expo hall. Discussion of the open source Signal K marine data protocol, for instance, was not just a NMEA first but drew a standing-room-only crowd, twice. Soon I hope to list some of the interesting small and medium-size developers who are adopting SK and also share some good news about how interested boaters can get involved in the first public gateway project. In the meantime, here are some of my Conference highlights...

NMEA_2015_FLIR_Raymarine_AX8_marine_thermal_monitoring_cPanbo.jpgFirst up is the new FLIR AX8 Marine Thermal Monitoring System, which strikes me as notably innovative technology. In real life the image above would likely be one side of a large diesel engine or some other thermally active systems area, and you'd most likely be looking at it on a Raymarine MFD, which just got AX8 integration with LightHouse Release 15. But my NMEA expo hall photo -- click it bigger -- does show the alternate browser interface that must be used to set up alarms for up to six temperature spots or boxed areas within the camera's 48° by 37° field of view. It also shows how the AX8 can use the edges detected by its 640 x 480 pixel video cam to make the 80 x 60 thermal image much easier to understand.

While a Raymarine MFD system can control many AX8 functions, as I hope to see soon at the Fort Lauderdale Show, it is somewhat ackward that you have to use a browser for configuration tasks like alarm setting. On the other hand, the tablet above is talking to the AX8 through a Ray MFD WiFi access point and could be online via the MFD as well, which is another new feature of LightHouse 15. (Incidentally, a Ray system can handle up to 8 of the all-IP $1,200 sensor/cameras, which are apparently also available for integration by other manufacturers.)

NMEA_2015_Shakespeare_WiFi_n_WEBwatch_cPanbo.jpgSpeaking of WiFi, look what I saw in the Shakespeare Marine booth. Their WiFi Amplifier page is just a tease right now, but obviously they are about to offer a Ubiquiti-Bullet-based system like the Rogue Wave and many others (and, yes, the WebWhip will have also have an easy browser interface). Meanwhile, the unique and shapely WebWatch dome will purportedly offer WiFi boosting along with 2/3/4G cellular data, an onboard hotspot and Ethernet router, and an HDTV antenna. Given that Shakespeare probably has the largest marine antenna distribution network, at least in the U.S., it sure looks like this stuff is going mainstream.

NMEA_2015_Humminbird_Helix_series_cPanbo.jpgThe new Humminbird Helix 7 series shows how the glass bridge style is nicely working its way down to small boats. There are many functions and networking options they lack, but, hey, that's an 800 x 480 pixel bonded 7-inch display with 1500 nits of LED brightness that starts at about $350 for the dual beam sonar only model. Plus when I started yammering about rehabbing the original 14-foot outboard Gizmo -- now L'il Gizmo -- so I can better test some of the new sonar gear plus do some recreational lobstering, the Humminbird guy got excited about how I could use their Side Imaging sonar to optimize trap placement and then use the MFD i-Pilot Link and a saltwater Minn Kota to automate the hauling process. It sounds like a neat project, but how will the real lobstermen react?

NMEA_2015_Lumishore_EOS_diagnostics_cPanbo.jpgThe NMEA Conference is naturally oriented to more complicated higher-end installation and service situations, and here's a good example. That's the display of a nifty Lumishore EOS underwater light controller and normally you'd be seeing the elegant screens you can use to change light colors and intensity, initiate "sweeps" or even fine tune how your luminous yacht bling integrates with your sound system. Bass in red or blue tones?

The extra cool part is that EOS uses the bi-directional open DMX512 RDM lighting standard, which means that third-party systems like Crestron's can also control the lights and moreover means that the lights themselves can talk to the system. So the geeky screen above shows the intimate internal details of a complex LED module possibly installed in some remote corner of a boat, without having to crawl there let alone pop the fixture. Lumishore -- which won the first ever NMEA underwater lighting award -- is bringing EOS down to smaller lights with a mini controller and Ocean LED is also working with DMX512, all of which I hope to learn more about in Lauderdale.

NMEA_2015_Intellian_GX60_detail_cPanbo.jpgI failed to photograph the ultra precision machining seen around an Intellian GX60 antenna's waveguide, and the fit and balance of the superlight carbon dish are also wondrous, but I did capture the diagram printed directly on the underside of the aluminum cover to the main electronics box. You can almost hear the murmured "thanks" of the tech who's working way up in a ship or yacht antenna farm, perhaps on a windy day. Inmarsat's third I-5 satellite is launched, which means that Global Express Ka-band high speed service is about to actually become global. Precision is what it takes to use such a distant and high frequency source from a moving platform, especially with a relatively small 26-inch dish, and it looks like Intellian has nailed it. But will Kymeta panel technology make satellite radomes obsolete? Color me skeptical but I am going to their Lauderdale presentation.

NMEA_2015_Digital_Antenna_n_Comrod_details_cPanbo.jpgHere are more reminders that marine electronics is as much about good mechanical engineering as it is circuit boards and firmware. On the left is the Digital Antenna Bullet that's been working well with Gizmo's cell booster but now the mount doesn't require the installer to drive little screws upside down while in the rigging. On the right are cutaways showing how Comrod marine antennas are completely filled with high density polyurethane foam, which seems to justify their claims of high durability and also explain their popularity with pro installers.

NMEA_2015_Nobeltec_Coastal_Monitoring_cPanbo.jpgThen again, good software can make well-made electronics sing. Nobeltec TimeZero Coastal Monitoring was impressive when I first saw it, and now it's amazing what it is providing to fish farming operators, dormant oil platform minders, resource protectors (in the Galapagoes), and possibly many other applications given a starting cost of about $30,000. We watched a demo showing how well it can use superfast ARPA (coming eventually to Nobeltec PC Radar) and AIS to detect any vessel moving in a desired area and then use conditional rules to take actions like zooming a camera in on the vessel, taking a still photo and texting it to an operator. Boaters like to save money by using consumer electronics instead of dedicated marine stuff, but here's a case where a well integrated recreational marine electronics bundle looks like a bargain compared the normal solutions. It also seems like a good opportunity for dealer/installer to drum up new and unusual clients.

Finally here's a helm shot of Impossible Dream, the universally accessible 60-foot sailing cat that several NMEA member companies recently supported with an extensive and collaborative electronics redo (that was still being fine tuned before the Baltimore reception ;-). It seems like a great story on several levels, and I'll try to tell it eventually, but in the meantime look for the Dream enabling boating joy around Biscayne Bay from her base at Shake A Leg Miami.

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NMEA Conference 2015, back-to-back good times with the Big Four

6 Oct

Written by Ben Ellison on Oct 6, 2015 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub

NMEA Conference Schedule 9-27-15 cPanbo.jpgThose early morning Google Calender notifications above indicate my awesome Wednesday schedule during last week's 2015 NMEA Conference. It's tempting to presume that the back-to-back demo trips around Baltimore Harbor with the Big Four manufacturers mark peak intensity for my career as a marine electronics pundit, but actually the whole industry seems to be in good shape with the pace of innovation quickening...

NMEA2015_demo_boats_cPanbo.jpgMaybe Jim McGowan of FLIR Raymarine was smiling because this demo morning was relatively calm and dry during a very weathery week. If you click the photo bigger, you'll see that Simrad and Garmin also had center consoles while Furuno, perhaps appropriately, had a larger cabin boat. (Si-Tex also had a demo boat and was in the exhibit hall along with Humminbird, so there are still alternate MFDs available.) Note the small fishfinder temporarily mounted on the stern of the Ray boat, because that's up first.

NMEA2015_Raymarine_Dragonfly_5_cPanbo.jpgThis second generation Dragonfly 5DVS CHIRP sonar with DownVision seems like a great example of how much quality marine engineering and manufacturing $300 can get you these days. Apparently the orginal Dragonfly (which impressed me in early 2013) has done better than expected on small saltwater boats and even kayaks (hence the Ray recommended Nocqua Lithium battery pack), and the designers responded with those big rubber buttons and what may be the easiest and most waterproof backside I've ever seen. Note the elegantly integrated RAM compatible ball mount, the single power/transducer connector with molded-in locking instructions, and the SD card slot with its serious bung and welcome which-way-up sticker. The six different Dragonfly 4 & 5 models -- including some with a subset of Lighthouse charting, plus Wi-Fish -- also illustrate a willingness to give boaters many choices, and the new design will no doubt work its way up to bigger Dragonflys.

Raymarine_eS_knob_and_app_FLIR_control_cPanbo.jpgThe Raymarine demo boat was my first look at the eS Series MFD design and I was especially taken with the new "Multifunction Rotary Control." It's big and has a somewhat stiff turning action, which add up to precise control as you scroll menus or set control sliders. It also has an 8-way joystick built into that outer ring which again seemed notably precise, even when challenged with controlling the stabilized T400's highly zoomed-in color camera. But the inset of MEJ Editor Jim Fullilove is about another way to control a pan/tilt camera that really got the crowd's attention. The latest version of the iOS RayView app can use a smartphone's motion sensors to do the steering, so Jim is seeing a thermal view of whatever he's pointing his phone at. He could be sitting in a yacht's head snooping around the harbor!

NMEA2015_Raymarine_SideVision_cPanbo_.jpgInner Baltimore Harbor is a target rich environment for high resolution structure sonar and I once again noted how detailed and far ranging Raymarine CHIRP SideVision is. That old pier at left doesn't show at all above the surface and hence is charted as a danger, but here you can see its piles almost 180 feet away in 18 feet of depth, which is useful whether you're trying to avoid it or find lurking fish. As you'll see further down the entry, I saw similar performance with Garmin Side, which can be had with a thru-hull transducer Raymarine hasn't offered yet. Both side looking technologies seem to perform somewhat better than the Simrad StructureScan HD I use a lot on Gizmo, but then again the coming-soon StructureScan 3D system is said to have improved range and resolution besides for the 3D part. In short, the sonar wars rage on, to the benefit of us civilians.

NMEA2015_Furuno_TZT_Judge_demo_boat_cPanbo.jpgActually, Furuno has so far avoided the high-frequency side, down, or forward looking sonar competition, and some of its personnel are a bit chagrined about it. But this is the company that trail blazed the now ubiquitous black glass multi-touch MFD concept, seen here as the original NavNet TZT and its recent NavPilot 711C and FI70 instrument cousins. The demo boat, incidentally, was a handsome Judge Chesapeake 36 built near Furuno's Denton MD facility, which I was also unaware of, and the owner of this fine helm is Bill Judge himself.

NMEA2015_Furuno_TZTouch2_rez_boost_cPanbo.jpgBut what we were really onboard to see were the several TZTouch2 MFDs temporarily installed on the Judge 36 and networked with its TZT system. So the clean RezBoost sonar seen in both images above, including Furuno-unique bottom discrimination, is built right into the TZT2, uses a less expensive non-CHIRP transducer, and you could choose from multiple sonar sources on any of the demo boat's displays. In fact, as I argued after the TZTouch2 intro, this MFD series is quite competitive with what we were seeing on the center consoles. Note, though, the many onscreen controls above, like the instant radar TX on/off button; the Android-based TZT2 interface may be a new benchmark in the battle to make oh-so-many-function MFDs easy to use.

NMEA2015_Furuno_TZT_engine_dash_n_Viewer_app_cPanbo.jpgDuring the previous day's CEO Panel, Navico's Marc Jourlait, FLIR/Raymarine's Andy Teich, and Actisense's Phil Whitehurst all hailed ease-of-use and connectivity as the important trends in marine electronics. And while I failed to get any good photos of the many useful swipes you can do from any TZTouch 2 main screen, I did experience the ease of not having to dig down through multiple menus to find a desired setting, a welcome "flatness" that early TZT2 adopter Fred Khedouri documented on Panbo. And while TZT2 doesn't yet have a remote control app, it does work with the independent Viewer app and it can download GRIB weather data, both useful early TZT features that still aren't widely supported by the competition.

NMEA2015_Furuno_TZT_edit_instrument_panel_cPanbo.jpgTZTouch2 also has the most customizable gauge screens I've yet seen, and it's almost fun to finger drag dials and data boxes around to build the display you want. The data alarming, though, is still the limited set offered by TZT and needs work like all the others in my opinion. Incidentally, we heard that some TZT features missing in TZT2, and vice versa, will be in future updates, but patience may be especially necessary due to the change in operating systems. But for the same reason, an Android version of the excellent Nobeltec TZ app is a "definite possibility" (spoken with a sly grin).

NMEA2015_Garmin_sonar_cPanbo_.jpgNow we're on the Garmin demo boat with three kinds of sonar imaging on screen. Again, note the SideVu range and detail; those horizontal lines are shadows of the marina slip pilings and you can see Baltimore bottom "stuff" all over the place. I regularly run a Simrad NSS screen like this -- except that there's a fourth ForwardScan window -- and really appreciate how all that sonar can benefit cruising as well as fishing. Garmin gets that and representative David Dunn emphasized that Panoptix is not just the remarkable small boat fishing weapon it is today, but also a platform that will see many future developements.

NMEA2015_Garmin_Panoptix_cPanbo_.jpgMy screenshots failed to capture much, but the Panoptix demo was nonetheless impressive (like in Miami), especially given that Dunn's mate was holding the transducer on a pole. Though the boat was practically stopped, we saw a normal size fishing lure flitting through the 3D water column, which lends credence to the Garmin fishing pros who claim they can put their lures right in front of fish and even tell if they're interested. And Dunn says he's seen Panoptix imaging well at speeds above 10 knots, and that there's lots more possible with interpreting and displaying all the data collected by this phased array sensor.

Garmin_Panoptix_thru-hull_aPanbo.jpgNow let's imagine what's possible with, say, the big Panoptix thru-hull transducer announced today (along with 25kW xHD2 open array radars fit for the big sportfishing boats Garmin has won over). What if Garmin designs a forward looking thru-hull and focuses the technology on grounding avoidance? I think it will see further and wider than anything available in recreational marine electronics. And what if Garmin gets into crowd sourced depth mapping (soon is my guess)? Panoptix may be able to collect multiple soundings at once, even looking forward since the sensor knows its heading and tilt. Panoptix is not just a new Garmin platform, but a new recreational sonar mode that is probably already being worked on in competitor R&D centers, I suspect.

NMEA2015_Garmin_VIRB_to_MFD_cPanbo.jpgAnother sign of the times are great new feature updates that don't even get a press release. Who knew that Garmin 7400/7600 and 8000 MFDs can now display and control multiple VIRB XE cameras over WiFi? Coming soon, said Dunn, are marine mounts with a power supply cable built in, and I just noticed that the VIRB XE can somehow collect depth and wind info in addition to what it gets from its built-in GPS, motion sensors, and other G-Metrix relationships. Moreover, the latest free Garmin Helm app can purportedly record an MFD screen stream running Panoptix, VIRB video, mapping etc. so you can easily share it all on social media.

All of which speaks to FLIR CEO Andy Teich's enthusiasm about the growing value of video imaging on boats. In the exhibit hall we saw a very innovative example -- the FLIR AX8 engine monitoring just enabled in Raymarine Lighthouse 15 -- and I'm hoping to eventually see this Garmin style integration with FLIR's own FX action/security WiFi cams. And maybe FX integration will be available not just to Raymarine but to other marine developers, FLIR style.

NMEA2015_Simrad_Halo_cPanbo.jpgFinally, there was the Simrad demo, which focused primarily on the new Halo open array radar I first saw in January. It's astounding technology, both electronically and mechanically, and I learned details missed in my first "how it works" entry. The automated user modes, for instance, are not just a good combination of gain and clutter settings for a particular situation. An engineer in Auckland working with radar files collected by the test fleet (with over 50,000 miles under their keels now) has 17 internal Halo variables to work with as he perfects a mode. In other words, there's a whole lot of complication behind what ends up being a notable ease-of-use feature. Again my photos aren't great but notice how Halo handles target saturated Baltimore inner harbor with aplomb, not sidelobe messiness. The 400 foot range window is showing a couple of nearby seagulls and in the 24 mile range window Halo is peeking at least 20 miles over the waterfront to Kent Island (where TrawlerFest would soon be sadly cancelled). At one point, we saw both these extremes simultaneously, all in automated dual range modes, no tweaking needed.

NMEA2015_Simrad_Halo_undressed_cPanbo.jpgThat's the Ranting Installer Bill Bishop enjoying a Halo strip down with Matt Cooper and John Scott, both of whom have spent years helping to develop what, among other things, is the "first dual range pulse compression radar" available in any market. We learned how perfectly that (dead quiet) brushless motor must rotate the antenna, so that the relatively weak solid-state pulses can be precisely added up to image targets as distant and obscured as Kent Island. And we'd already seen how a single allen wrench can be used to dissemble the Halo and easily replace the motor module or the wave guide/electronics module Scott is holding (though the expected lifetime is long). All four of the circuit boards normally live in that module, including the one Bill may be drooling over...

NMEA2015_Simrad_Halo_boards_cPanbo.jpgIf you click big the image above, you too can see the fascinating section where the tiny RF pulses are precisely channeled through the rare earth Gallium Nitride amplifiers and into the wave guide. Also highlighted in red is the super powerful field-programmable gate array, purportedly only available from one foundry on earth and the part that makes Dobbler target discrimination (i.e. super wave clutter control) possible as a future Halo update (which can be done in the field). So what we have here is another new platform that's already being enjoyed on some boats and that the competitors are eyeballing closely.

Jim, Bill, and I weren't just looking at all this gear as electronics writers. We were also the three judges for this year's NMEA New Technology Award, and Halo was our decision, though it was remarkably close. And besides all the Big Four items I've covered here, we saw much more, particularly in the connectivity area, like the blossoming of Signal K and new ways you can get your boat online (making it easier to use facilities like the Simrad "check for updates" feature seen below, similarly enabled in Ray's LH15). NMEA also garnered some 160 membership votes from their Products of Excellence Awards, and you can download the interesting results here. These are good times in marine electronics, and there are many winners.

NMEA2015_Simrad_NSS_evo2_update_check_cPanbo.jpg

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Pilot Line autopilot, unfinished business

17 Aug
Written by Ben Ellison on Aug 17, 2015 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub I hesitate to write about a marine technology that isn't an actual product yet, especially when I don't understand it! However, there may be a story here ... Read More

SRT acquires Class B AIS patent, consequences uncertain

1 Jul

Written by Ben Ellison on Jul 1, 2015 for Panbo, The Marine Electronics Hub

SRT_Acquisition_of_Patent_release_clips_aPanbo.jpgFor me, this story began with a March 5th email titled "AIS patent wars - a tax on safety?" It referenced the SRT stock market announcement partially shown above and went on to say:

The whole point of using CSTDMA instead of SoTDMA in the original design of Class B was to avoid any problems with patents to ensure the successful uptake of the system by manufacturers. I see this as a tax on safety and a desperate attempt by SRT to force manufacturers to use their solutions rather than those from competitors and so create a pseudo-monopoly in the Class B world, which cannot be good for competition or the end user. To say I am furious would be putting it mildly...

The author of that email asked to remain anonymous, which is easy because I only know him as a nickname with an inscrutable email address who occasionally writes me with what seems like an insider's knowledge of AIS technology and the regulatory process that made it happen. But anonymous recollections and opinions don't have the weight of on-the-record testimony, and worse is "off the record" information which I can't share at all. I ran into lots of both while researching this patent and that's one reason why this entry will focus on documents that are publicly available or that I have seen with my own eyes. Readers will have to draw their own conclusions and the ultimate consequences seem murky anyway.

Patent 7512095 began as SIS

US_Patent_7512095_Multiple_Access_Communication_System_for_Moveable_Objects_aPanbo.jpgIt's easy for anyone to Google the full details of Patent 7512095. The invention is named a Multiple Access Communication System for Moveable Objects and AIS is not specifically referenced, nor are the SOTDMA and CSTDMA transmission techniques discussed in my recent entry about the "new" SOTDMA Class B standard. That may partially explain why several anonymous sources involved with AIS seem surprised that a CSTDMA related patent exists at all, though others are not.

US_Patent_Application_60477125_Simple_Identification_System_aPanbo.jpg

It takes just a little more digging to find the 2003 Provisional Patent application that preceded the one granted in 2009. (Go to the official USPTO search site, fill in the CAPTCHA, and search for Application Number "60477125".) Though still not called CSTDMA, this SIS patent concept is clearly about the Carrier Sense TDMA technique that replaced SOTDMA as the first Class B standard. In fact, the necessary "shorter packet" explains why a new two-part Class B static data message had to be created, which went on to cause a number of issues (as also discussed last week). Note, too, the first paragraph reference to the "patent issues which impact cost" {of the then current SOTMA AIS method}. While the differences between the 2003 patent application and the 2009 patent are great, be careful about drawing conclusions; I'm told that it's common for provisional patent language to be broadened considerably in the final draft.

The IEC connection

IEC_TC80_WG15_members_2015_aPanbo.jpgI've never met the original patent applicant, Mark Johnson, but know him to be the proprietor of Shine Micro and purportedly the engineer behind some of the best AIS receivers on the planet. He's also a longtime member of IEC TC 80/WG 15 -- the AIS working group of the IEC's subcommittee on maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems -- as is Andreas Lesch, Johnson's co-inventor for patent 7512095 (who apparently sold his share to SRT last March). Therein lies something of a mystery given the often heard notion that TC 80/WG 15 developed alternative CSTDMA to avoid patent restrictions.

I have seen some credible documentation of the Class B/CS standards-making process, including what seems to be a long email chain amongst WG 15 members. It seems clear, and it's acknowledged by many, that Mark Johnson took a lead in developing the CSTDMA standard, writing on June 7, 2003, "I will be proposing a non-SOTDMA lower cost Class B variant that is low in cost, very 'polite', and compatible with existing Class A AIS. I am quite confident that it avoids the IPR issues." That was one day before he filed the SIS provisional intellectual property claim referenced above, but again be careful with conclusions. One anonymous explanation of this apparent inconsistency is that the patent was filed only as a potential defense if some other entity claimed CSTDMA rights.

iec_form_62287_Hakan_Lans_aPanbo.jpg

The IEC has a clearly stated policy that anyone participating in the work should reveal any known patent or pending patent application, either their own or of other organizations, and there's a form for the purpose. If you go to the IEC's patent declarations database and search on IEC Class B AIS Standard "62287" you will only find one declaration, partially shown above. It was filed by Anders Håkan Lans in 2007, stating that he would license manufacturers of SOTDMA Class B on a non-discriminatory basis with reasonable terms and conditions, though it seems that the IEC did not complete the B/SO standard until after the Håkan Lans patent claim was cancelled after reexamination. RAND or FRAND licensing terms are acceptable to the IEC, however, though the "free of charge" option #1 above is probably preferable, and patents under option #3 are not supposed to be in IEC standards.

All of this may help to understand SRT's stance on the patent and also the recollections of the one TC 80/WG 15 participant willing to go on-the-record so far. That's Joe Hersey, Jr., who is now retired from a 27-year USCG career deeply involved with telecommunications and standards-making, but who remains secretary of the US National Committee's Technical Advisory Group to IEC TC80. Here's his answer to my query about the Johnson/IEC patent situation back in 2003:

Yes, I believe that the IEC and its Working Group 15 (responsible at that time for Class A and B) were very well aware early in the CSTDMA development process that Mark had filed a provisional patent application, although I cannot speak to exactly when they became aware. Mark had made it very clear from the beginning of development of the standard that he had done so, but that its use was being offered free of charge on a non-discriminatory basis. The Working Group was very much aware of the patent difficulties associated with the Class A device and wanted to ensure the Class B avoided such difficulties. Since IEC could not complete a Class B CSTDMA standard until the technique were recognized in ITU-R Rec M.1371, the IALA AIS technical working group, had to prepare a CSDTMA amendment to that Recommendation too. The IALA AIS TWG members were also aware of the pending patent application, and that its use was being offered free of charge on a non-discriminatory basis.

And here's Hersey's response to my question about the possible effects of SRT's licensing plan:

Because this patent has been long known and understood by the AIS standards committee members to be offered free of charge on a non-discriminatory basis, I question how SRT's plan to suddenly offer licenses on a FRAND basis could be beneficial to the AIS industry and consumers. IEC, ITU-R, ITU-T and ISO have long held a common patent policy that requires participants in standards committees who hold a patent which may affect a standard under development to file a statement indicating which of three conditions licensing would be offered: free of charge and non-discriminatory, non-discriminatory and reasonable terms & conditions, or neither. If neither, the standard could not include provisions depending upon that patent. Hakan Lans filed noting the second option under the Class B SOTDMA standard IEC 62287-2. No filing was ever made regarding the Class B CSTDMA standard, despite Mark Johnson and Andreas Lesch (the later co-owner of the patent) being intimately involved in the standard's development.

SRT on the record

I first looked into the IEC connection back in March and it happened that CEO Simon Tucker gave me SRT's official take on it just after WG 15 had used its facility for a meeting where the patent was briefly discussed. You'll see that Tucker had much more to say about why SRT acquired the patent and why their management of it may be a benefit to the industry and consumers:

This Patent and its founding prior-art IPR was known to the relevant IEC committees for many years, including before and during the development of the CSTDMA based Class B standard. However no formal license statement and or license procedure for this patent had been established by the owners. SRT was the first company to develop a low cost Class B and today offers a full range of AIS products from AIS Aids to Navigation and Class A to Class B and Coast station technology and product solutions, each of which offers best in class functionality and reliability. Our investment in leading edge technologies and robust and reliable derivative products has seen AIS products be substantially reduced in size and cost, simultaneously with their functionality and performance substantially increased. SRT has a long term commitment to AIS and is thus, of all companies, interested in its continued development within the correct standards process as defined by the IEC committee. As a responsible company SRT took the opportunity to acquire rights to the Patent to secure its use for the AIS standard going forward. Last week {March 20}, SRT hosted the IEC standards committee meeting at which this topic was discussed. The IEC AIS standards committee has a clear process for the licensing of IPR / Patents which are required for technical standards created by the IEC, and SRT confirmed that, as a responsible international company, that it would be following this process and therefore offering licenses for the Patent on a FRAND basis. This action by SRT ensures that a critical part of the AIS standard is secure for the benefit of all AIS stakeholders for the future and normalizes its availability. This is great news for the long term stability and continued evolution of AIS technology and products.

Regardless of the patent's history and its possible safety in SRT's hands, the underlying concern I first heard -- "A tax on safety?" -- remains, at least for some. Here is Simon Tucker's recent response on that subject:

I see no valid reason why the licensing of a long known and established patent which ensures a technology standard works well should affect end user pricing; proof of this is that licenses are already agreed and there has been no price increase. Essential and other IPR licensing into products is a normal procedure in most products and industries these days - the average mobile phone or drug can have up to 20 of these. It's down to the manufacturer to keep pace through continuous investment in R&D to generate more value in their product than the cost of the third party IPR they wish and or have to use. In our view this is a natural competitive process which in the end ensures that real R&D continues, and that companies seeking to provide the market with products never become lazy. Of course those companies who have chosen not to invest in new core technologies and products for years on end, take their profits and run, will not want or like change. But in my view the evolving requirements of the market are to be respected at all times and it expects manufacturers to continuously invest in order to win their business.

As for actual license details, a​n anonymous and displeased manufacturer showed me an email that appeared to originate from SRT and proposed "a quick and amicable agreement without publicity or any disruption to your business"​ with the following terms: "....there are well set precedents/norms for essential IPR such as this which is 5% of the net of tax retail price. We estimate that the average Class B retail price is in the region of $700, thus indicating a per unit royalty of $35 per unit. Our legal right to the per unit royalty extends to all sales over the last 6 years prior to our first expression of rights, and then going forward in the future. Thus, there would be a lump sum in regard to the arrears and then quarterly payments on sales until March 2019 when the patent expires."

On the other hand, another anonymous AIS manufacturer responded to the initial SRT patent news with: "I don't think it is a major issue for us. I do think they are trying to protect themselves from an onslaught of $200 Class Bs from China. In that sense it should help us as well." There are at least six independent Class B AIS manufacturers: Garmin, Furuno, Icom, AMEC, Weatherdock, and Vesper Marine.

Vesper Marine challenges the patent

USPTO_application_to_rexxam_patent_7512095_aPanbo.jpgFinally, there's the question of Patent 7512095's validity. In late April, a Seattle law firm representing Vesper Marine asked the U.S. Patent Office to reexamine all 14 of its claims against what's known as prior art. The 124 page petition and many related documents can be viewed or downloaded at the USPTO search site (search for Application Number "90/013498") and may in themselves be an indicator of the industry costs in such circumstances.

Here are Joe Hersey's thoughts on the patent's validity:

I am uncertain whether the patent is a valid claim to an original invention for a number of reasons. I believe some question to this effect existed at the time, but because it was understood that the patent was being offered free of charge, it was not considered to be a concern. For example, Mark did not invent the CSTDMA technique alone but did so in cooperation with the USCG R&D Center, David Pietraszewski in particular. The Coast Guard has, in my opinion, an equally legitimate claim to the invention of the CSTDMA technique. Secondly, the "listen before transmit" technique central to CSTDMA slot access is not uncommon in telecommunications technology.

In early June, the Patent Office announced its determination that "A substantial new question of patentability affecting claims 1-14 of the '095 Patent is raised by the Third Party's request..." and that the reexamination will proceed (as shown below).

USPTO_determination_to_rexxam_patent_7512095_aPanbo.jpg

So that's the situation as well as I can report it at this time. Of course, I welcome corrections and commentary. The reexamination process as I understand it is that SRT has an opportunity to respond to the reexamination request, the Vesper Marine representatives may respond to their response, and then the USPTO will make a judgement on the patent's validity. That's why I wrote that the consequences are murky. The patent may affect AIS developers and users in some ways until 2019 or not. But what's happened so far has happened, confusing and complex though it may be, and there may be consequences for the companies and individuals involved. The floor is open.

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