Save Your Boat!: Remote Boat Monitoring and Killer Apps

7 Jan

For Christmas our house got the Nest thermostat and smoke alarm/carbon monoxide detector, smart devices that connect to a smartphone app via Wi-Fi. Such devices are part of the Internet of Things, in which the electronic things in our lives communicate with us and control themselves by learning our patterns and schedules.

Upon installing the Nest smoke alarm/carbon monoxide detector, I thought hey, I could put one if these things on my boat, and as long as it’s in Wi-Fi range it would send me a warning if my boat caught fire. At $100, with a free, slick app, this could be pretty cheap insurance. Then I wondered if there might be a way for it to also send a warning if my boat was taking on water, but there was no easy way to do this. It dawned on me that being a marine electrician I could easily rig a high water float switch to trigger a small electrical fire, which would then activate the smoke alarm and let me know my boat was sinking. I knew I was onto my next multi-million dollar idea, so I popped into one of the venture capital firms down in Menlo Park. They said, “Clark, you had us at electrical fire,” but a quick competitive analysis revealed that greater minds have been on the case for years: There are several remote boat monitoring platforms.

When I think about what I’d like to know about my boat when I’m away, it boils down to these three things:
1. Is it sinking?
2. Is it on fire?
3. Is it going somewhere without my knowledge? (IE Has it been stolen, have the dock lines parted, is it dragging anchor, or has its mooring parted?)

But apparently I’m thinking small. These systems can send all manner of information to your smartphone, from your battery charge level, to fluid levels, to ambient temperature, or even if someone has undone one of the snaps on your boat cover. You can control various pumps, lights, and switches remotely, or even have a look around the main cabin via remote camera. Still, I maintain that the Nest smoke alarm/carbon monoxide detector is a cheap and cheerful remote fire alarm for a boats that have Wi-Fi at the dock or at their marina.

These systems all use proprietary electronic base stations, which reside on your boat somewhere, and this base station connects to the various sensors. Most systems come with the basic sensors (high water or bilge pump activity, high temperatur/fire, GPS location and “geofencing”), or terminals to connect to existing devices (like a bilge pump), and then have open slots for additional sensors and controls. Prices are reasonable, at $300 to $800 for the hardware with no frills.

The platform of choice seems to be cellular, which is touted as the most reliable, but of course will only work while your boat is in cellular range, and not far offshore. Cellular monitoring costs $9-$15 per month.

The GOST system, based in Ft. Lauderdale, is satellite-based (Inmarsat) with worldwide tracking. GOST seems to be more focused on the megayacht market, and I assume it’s more expensive, but they also sell basic tracking devices.

Of the cellular-based systems, Siren Marine and Boat Command are based in the US. Siren Marine offers a seasonal subscription, which brings the price down for snowbirds.

One of Siren Marine’s base stations:

Boat Warden is based in Ireland, C-Pod in Sweden, and Boat Guard in the UK.

The C-Pod base station:

I think these systems will become as commonplace as security systems on cars. At less than a thousand dollars for a sophisticated hardware platform that monitors all manner of things aboard, and under $200 per year in subscription fees (and I’m rounding the prices up) it’s a relatively small price to pay for peace of mind, security, and convenience.

Yes, some spectacular boating disasters have come from relying too much on electronic gadgets, and I’m sure blind trust in these systems will cause some spectacular disasters too, but sinking, fire, and theft are among the top causes of boat loss, and one of these systems could reduce the instances of all three substantially.

Several of the systems offer a “buddy alert” feature, so people other than the owner can get the alerts too. If one of those people were the marina manager or boat neighbor, it would up the chances of getting someone on the scene quickly. If insurance companies get onboard with discounts for boaters who have such systems (who will have a lower risk of loss from sinking, fire, or theft) these systems might pay for themselves.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Gordon Oelkers

    I came across your article after reading another on seacocks and sinking boats. this was a Boat Us article and got me thinking as you were with the nest alarm. well there went my million dollar idea !!
    a day late and dollar short. The add ons and possibilities are endless with a base unit and power.

  2. Slaptop

    +Clark & +Jaco

    I’ve just started looking at this

    It looks like a hybrid DIY or packaged solution comprising of bundled open source (free) products plus a hosted browser accessible monitoring and alerting service.
    It runs on linux (free) based Raspberry Pi (peanuts), optional supported sensors, relays and dongles ($?) and a tiny subscription.

    It looks like a youngish project and so I expect new functionality offerings might appear.

    You can pull all the h/w and s/w (compiling it etc.) together manually
    OR download a complete system image to a TF (SD) card and just pull together the H/W
    or get them to send you everything for you to fit.

    As I have an old Pi 2 I’ll probably play with the middle option.

  3. Clark Beek

    Hi Jaco, You’re way ahead of me. I did some poking around into WiFi sensors and various ways to create one of these systems on the cheap, and I kept coming up against technical obstacles far beyond me…like being able to write an App, or write code that lets a sensor or camera talk to the Internet.

  4. jaco

    A great update to this story would be a DIY alternative to the $500 to $1000 video camera systems offered by some commercial providers.

    Specifically a remotely activated camera being accessible via onboard wireless portable router/hot spot. Cameras are available for under $100 & routers under $50. The reason for this is my boat is winter stored locally but over 1 hour away. Being able to access/turn on/pan/zoom an internet activated camera would be a great help (my winter cover was wrecked last year due to a nasty storm). The equipment would have access to AC power and 4G cell phone data. Recording via DVR is not necessary. Just dial this baby up via your smart phone/internet, turn on the camera and take a look around. Set up details? Thoughts?
    Not being in a winter storage area (I assume), this type of monitoring may not have occurred to you, but I’m guessing you could handle something this simple no problem and at vastly lower cost than commercial providers such as Marine Guard.
    Thanks for your input.

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