Starlight LED helming guide, plus Autonnic’s unusual A55 “analog” instrument displays

7 Jan

One of my METS show highlights was the Starlight LED Helming Guide introduced by Autonnic Research. While the concept is somewhat hard to grasp from ashore — even with an animation — I think it’s a great example of how electronics can be fashioned into a unique and useful tool that connects intuitively with the natural world of boating. While “a star to steer by” sounds lovely, I’ve observed many a helmsman who needed lots of help and experience to make it a truly smooth and pleasurable experience, and I’m pretty sure that Starlight can substantially shorten the learning curve. Autonnic CEO Chris Shelton also showed me some prototype analog instrument displays that use unusual scaling when it’s brilliantly useful, as explained in the second section.

Autonnic A5600 Starlight LED steering light bar

The initial A5600 Starlight is a 36-inch (910 mm) tube encapsulating a 26-inch (660 mm) LED light bar along with simple dimming and course setting buttons. The light bar is meant to install 6 to 16 feet forward of the helm and vertically close to the driver’s visual horizon, with the cable connecting to DC power and a NMEA 0183 Heading source (like one of Autonnic’s own fluxgate sensors). So the fixed on-center yellow LED marks your bow while the active blue LEDs marking the Course to Steer change to port or starboard as illustrated this Autonnic animation:


In other words, Starlight gives you a constant reference not just to your steering accuracy but also to how quickly your error or correction is taking place. And it’s not necessary to glance downward to a compass or a conventional instrument display, aside from deciphering the real meaning of changing digital numbers or a swinging card. Moreover, Starlight allows adjustment of the horizontal degree angle represented by the light bar’s red and green LED endpoints so it best integrates your helm view to real-world objects like stars or navaids, or simply to adjust how precisely your wobbly steering is displayed.

The A5600 Starlight (PDF specifications here) is available now for about $329, but note that Autonnic hopes to add steering to waypoint or wind angle options by about June. Also planned for release at about the same time is a NMEA 2000 Starlight system with all three steer-by modes possible. And while I don’t know of any concrete plans, I like to picture how slickly the Starlight technology could be built into a dodger or the after edge of a cockpit companionway, or maybe even the fully integrated “dashboards” we’re going to start seeing in many new boats this year.

Autonnic A55 Instrument Displays

Prototype design for Autonnic analog voltage/current display

Prototype design for Autonnic analog voltage/current display

While the prototype instruments that Autonnic showed in Amsterdam were crude, I sure liked the concept. It’s not just the “classic watch-like” design style, though that can look great on a yacht and many people understand data in analog form more easily. What really got my attention was Chris Shelton’s willingness to mess with traditional scaling to better show the information boaters really want.

So in the case of this 12v DC power display, the voltage is only shown from 10 to 16 because precision in that range is important, and a battery bank or charging source outside that range probably has serious issues regardless of exact voltage. Meanwhile, showing DC current on a logarithmic-like scale makes it possible to monitor small loads with precision while still seeing large ones.

Autonnic A5520 analogue wind display

Autonnic A5520 analog wind display

Autonnic’s power display has not been formally announced yet, but the A5520 Wind and A5500 Compass displays are official, and the wind speed display above deserves particular attention. I don’t think that’s an actual logarithmic scale, but wind force on a boat increases at a greater rate than linear wind speed — here’s the math — and Autonnic seems to combine that notion with emphasis on the wind speed/forces that boaters tend to care most about.

Note, for instance, the inclusion of a secondary Beaufort scale, a wind force metric also jiggered to reflect resulting open sea states. And wouldn’t you agree that while most sailors (and smart power boaters) become intimate with the precise differences experienced in the 5 to 25-knot wind speed range, pretty much all you need to know about an increase from 30 to 40 knots is that life will become much worse?

And would you also agree that Autonnic is demonstrating how modern electronics can improve analog style information delivery, not just duplicate it? I look forward to hearing more about how Starlight and the A55 instruments perform in the real world, but I wasn’t surprised to learn in today’s research that Chris Shelton is a longtime innovator.


This article was syndicated from Panbo


  1. firstlast

    Re the Helming Guide. Some argue that it could be a distraction to maintaining a proper lookout..particularly if the helmsperson is “inexperienced”. This is a rather specious argument. The plethora of popular chart/course plotters, let alone the basic compass are all potential distractions if a person excessively concentrates on those navigation aids. The inexperienced person becomes competent by multiple use of instruments.

  2. Gus van Driel

    That’s exactly what my reaction was as well Brad.

    The more electronics that are installed on any boat the more likely the helmsman is likely to concentrate on it rather than the immediate surroundings to the point of some times placing complete reliance on those systems. Proof in point, the horrific number of U.S. Naval and boat sled collisions that occurred this past year. And in those cases it certainly was not an “inexperienced helmsman” who was to blame.

  3. brad

    I foresee one problem with this. Put an inexperienced helmsman behind this light bar and they will concentrate on the bar and not their surroundings. The problem could develop in shipping lanes and a boat could get run over while the person behind the wheel is putting their full concentration on the lights and not looking for other boat traffic.

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