Old Boats with New Tricks

A new digital switching system brings reliable old battlewagons up to speed
A Viking Yacht sport-fishing boat cruising across the water.
Older vessels like this Viking can benefit from new technology. Courtesy Viking Yacht Company

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Airmar recently introduced an NMEA 2000 multinetwork gateway that allows boat owners to do what may not have been practical before: convert a solid, reliable 20-year-old sport-fisher into a modern, digitally monitored billfishing battlewagon. Airmar calls it SmartBoat, and it allows the retrofit to be done in a manner so low in labor intensity and so cost effective, fishermen are likely to see this retrofit being as necessary, convenient, and beneficial as hauling the boat for new bottom paint.

A flexible sensor interface allows the installer to define the function and protocol of each input and configure it for the specs of nearly any existing sender. Each SmartBoat module has multiple inputs that can be configured to monitor a fluid level, temperature, pressure or nearly anything you might need it to sense. The system uses the vessel’s existing senders, and each gateway has multiple inputs that are individually configured to anything you need them to be. The modules plug into the N2K backbone, transmitting data to existing N2K multifunction displays. If you can open an internet browser, you can configure a SmartBoat module with the free online tools.

From the Beginning

To get the full feel of this new SmartBoat system, we need to roll back the clock 22 years, when marine-electronics makers and the National Marine Electronics Association collaborated to develop the NMEA 2000 digital protocol known as N2K. At that time, it was the ­cutting-edge high-speed-data conduit that set a steadily increasing group of ­electrical engineers on a path to convert their widgets to ­communicate on the new bus network. Even at 22 years old, the data-communications protocol is the tip of the spear in ­making boats easier to maintain, operate and service.

The N2K network first aligned marine electronics with navigation display systems, and then aligned engine-makers’ running data to communicate on that network. For them, the victory was bittersweet as boatbuilders abandoned engine brand displays for the sleek convenience of displaying engine data across a ­vessel’s navigation MFDs. Today, everyone from audio-makers to ­windlass-makers work to tap that N2K network to make their products easier to install and more intuitive to operate, and eliminate a large portion of the troubleshooting ­nightmares from terminal wiring.

Watch: The Marlin team explores the fishery of the Andaman Sea off Myanmar in this episode of Bluewater Chronicles.

But until now, if you had a yacht built pre-N2K with analog sensors—NMEA0183, J1939 or J1708 engine-­data-reporting protocol—there was no practical pathway to retrofitting. In short, the vessel operator was shackled to finding and replacing sensors that were becoming increasingly scarce, while also finding that replacing rudimentary LCD displays could cost more per engine than a 2-inch Garmin, and basically kept the captains from benefitting from digital ­engine-management systems.

The SmartBoat system has changed all that, and it’s being proved today on two mid-1990s boats: a Berger 82 and a Viking 58.

Airmar SmartBoat module
Each SmartBoat module can accommodate up to 12 inputs, while an easy-to-use sensor interface called SmartFlex View ties it all together. Courtesy Airmar

The Conversion to Digital

The Berger’s original monitoring equipment was made by Isis Marine Technologies. While the ship’s captain was busy getting quotes for a complete electronics refit, Airmar announced the availability of SmartBoat as an option. The system was timely because the components the captain was being quoted would’ve required changing every single sensor in the vessel—a time-consuming and expensive job. The SmartBoat architecture allows every existing sending unit and sensor to be plugged into the SmartBoat modules, which could be easily configured to understand the sensor input, and then convert it to standard N2K language to be displayed on any modern navigation equipment.

Craig Cushman, Airmar’s director of marketing, describes the system advantages: “On the Berger, the owner had just invested considerable money refitting the interior of the vessel. Replacing the main tank level senders would require lifting the gensets that were nested along the centerline, meaning the salon floor would need to be replaced again. This was just not a viable option, especially considering that the original Isis fuel-level senders still functioned. SmartBoat allowed the installer to attach the ­existing senders to its inputs, and the Garmin displays at the helms immediately presented accurate tank levels that had not been available to the captain for many years.”

In the Viking, functioning sensors could be retained while eliminating the need to source and replace failed or obsolete ­displays and gauges. All the installer needs to do is route the original sensor wires to the N2K-connected SmartBoat module, plug it into one of 12 data-input points per module, and then log in to the module via Wi-Fi to source Airmar’s built-in configuration software, SmartFlex View. The software interface is highly intuitive, with drop-down menus that guide the process, narrowing the selections on consecutive drop-downs as systems are described. The tech needs only to know what the sensor is supposed to report and follow the prompts. Also, the system is compact, with each module measuring 6.5-by-4.5 inches, which is a great advantage over existing ­digital-switching systems.

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While the SmartBoat system is ­configured today primarily for ­system data reporting, the potential is there for connecting entry sensors and bilge-water sensors, and collecting and reporting other important security data. Airmar won’t tip its hand on future system capabilities, or if there is a future in it for digital switching, but the system is all software-addressable; firmware updates and compatible switching hardware could potentially bring many new functions to the system as it is developed. While the system will record data from sensors associated with security systems, it has not yet been equipped with the ability to report status outside the vessel. SmartBoat modules cost $700 to $1,445, and each holds up to 12 inputs. More inputs require more modules, but they are all easily installed, compact, and simple to program via the Airmar configuration tool.

If you love your classic boat but hate the temperamental data-reporting mechanisms, Airmar’s SmartBoat might be a good solution.

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