When designing an electronics package for a workboat, it usually involves figuring out how to most efficiently wire everything together. Well, it still does and there’s still plenty of wire.

But there’s a growing trend now to ditch some of that wiring and move towards wireless connectivity by taking advantage of such things as sensor technology, smart devices, open architecture hardware and software, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

There’s been more of an effort in the recreational market to turn these technologies into forms of wireless connectivity, but that is changing.

Raymarine introduced an MFD (multifunction display) in 2011 with standard Wi-Fi connectivity that allows networking with a smartphone and apps. Since 2012, Furuno has had an MFD with Wi-Fi connection, allowing the MFD to be controlled from a tablet or smart device, and now cloud compatibility is being introduced.

Raymarine introduced its Quantum CHIRP radar with Wi-Fi connectivity last year. The scanner requires a power line, but not “a heavy interunit cable,” said Jim McGowan, Raymarine’s marketing manager. The primary market is the pleasure boat operator, but McGowan said it “would be great for a 30- to 40-foot workboat.” Also, taking advantage of its small size and light weight, it could be a portable, auxiliary sensor on a large towing vessel. The wireless link is good for more than 100 yards.

Wireless is popular “with recreational boats but certain areas of wireless are getting more popular with commercial boats,” said Eric Kunz, senior project manager at Furuno.

One example is when a captain is able to download basic vessel data on an Android or iPhone. “You don’t have to turn on a machine, just look at your phone and run through a checklist of everything that needs to be done before you get going and cross referencing that to the vessel’s system,” Kunz said.

Targeting Workboats

Expect companies like Raymarine and Furuno to make more inroads into the commercial wireless market.

In the meantime, Setel PowerLine Ltd., Norcross, Ga., whose market has primarily been bluewater ships such as oil tankers and containerships, wants to move into the workboat market.

“Legacy wise, our customers are merchant, oceangoing vessels,” said Greg Henderson, managing director at Setel PowerLine. But last year, Setel took its act to the International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans, where they had “some good conversations” with workboat operators, he said.

The company hasn’t “done a lot with workboats, per se,” but Henderson points out that the technology used on workboats is exactly the same as that used on merchant ships and “it’s totally applicable.”

It’s IP based and uses the existing electrical structure to create a vesselwide network, so it doesn’t matter what type of vessel it’s matched up with. Anything can be monitored and passed along the system, as long as it’s IP or digital, and it can be “accessed off the ship,” said Henderson. “Then management has visibility into not just one ship but across the fleet to make decisions.”

Start by connecting Setel’s Internet gateway device or master unit to the main electrical distribution board. That injects a digital signal wherever there is power throughout the boat. A connection point electric (CPE) slave unit that accepts IP units, such as PCs and monitoring devices, can then be plugged into a socket or plug in the Setel Deck WAP (wireless access point) unit to give you a Wi-Fi network.

Once the master unit is attached to the distribution board, “it’s like the trunk of a tree that injects digital signals throughout the ship, and it’s plug and play with the WAP unit or CPE,” Henderson said. “It offers extreme flexibility compared to having traditional Ethernet cables all across the vessel.”

In one case, a Setel network was installed on a containership so Edesix VB-300 body worn security cameras with Wi-Fi connectivity could be used to monitor the vessel, giving the crew better surveillance and control of onboard access. Using a satellite connection, the images could also be viewed from an onshore location.

On another vessel the Setel PowerLine network was installed to troubleshoot onboard problems. Incorporating Alphatron’s Alpha-Eye wearable camera system and monitoring software platform and a dedicated communications link with the vessel’s home office meant that error analysis and problem solving could be achieved in minutes with the visual feed and communications link.

Route Management

A route-management tool that utilizes a standard mobile device via a server on the boat is REX (route exchange app). The REX app runs with the Open Bridge Platform (OBP), an open source software, and the Maritime Cloud communications framework. REX has definite safety benefits and “there are opportunities for double-digit fuel savings,” said Jay Shaver, principal product engineer with Marsec Inc., a Silicon Valley company in Palo Alto, Calif., that developed the REX app.

A REX screenshot shows a green arrow that represents the user‘s vessel, with a green line along its intended route and numbers for each waypoint. The yellow arrows represent other AIS traffic. Image courtesy Marsec, Inc.

A REX screenshot shows a green arrow that represents the user‘s vessel, with a green line along its intended route and numbers for each waypoint. The yellow arrows represent other AIS traffic. Image courtesy Marsec, Inc.

REX was tested on Bastø Fosen AS ferries in the Horten-Moss Strait, part of Norway’s Oslo Fjord. It is said to be the most heavily trafficked strait in Norway. REX uses Wi-Fi data from a vessel’s onboard sensors to provide real-time information to a vessel’s skipper, as well as to other vessels able to communicate route exchange data.

In the case of a company-operated fleet, such as Bastø Fosen’s five ferries, other captains and an onshore operator can keep track of the ferries and their intentions with a dynamic ETA display that shows where vessels will be at a given moment. Providing a technical profile for each ferry, including how long it takes a particular ferry to accelerate and decelerate, helps REX accurately monitor a company’s fleet.

Anyone on the boat can log into the system from anywhere. Shaver cited a Color Line 2,700-passenger ferry that runs between Norway and Germany. The captain can be anywhere on the boat and log into the system with his smartphone. “He can check the estimated time of arrival in port, waypoints and traffic in the area,” said Shaver. “And he can make sure they are moving along appropriately on the most fuel efficient route.”

For a course change, instead of getting on the VHF and telling another skipper he is altering course, the captain can use a drag-and-drop interface on the screen that informs other captains what he is up to. That reduces confusion when talking on the VHF, which could result in a collision.

The OBP lets you add to REX’s functionality. For instance, during Norway’s winter, a shore-based radar can display ice floes and share that image as a layer in the app.

The REX app “helps to give a common view and common situational awareness across the space,” Shaver said.

This article was originally published in the May 2017 issue of WorkBoat Magazine.

Michael Crowley is a long-time Maine-based correspondent for WorkBoat Magazine, specializing in stories related to new vessel contruction and new gear, such as electronics, deck equipment and diesel engines.