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Old 10-05-2016, 06:40   #1
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Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

I am a total noob, so please bear with me...

I am looking at different systems on a boat, and the autopilots seem to be a source of huge contention.

Anyhow, not having any hands on, why couldn't an autopilot just be a stepper motor, driven by an Ardinuo plugged into OpenCPN, with seemingly a tiny amount of connecting software bits. A few safety protocols, like turn into the wind if the boat heels outside of some error bars, with a switch to figure between wind heading, or compass heading.

Why are these devices that cost thousands of dollars? The exception being the Tillerpilot line of products, but even then, those seem priced way out of proportion to what they are.

I mean, with a $60 stepper motor, I could twist your arm right off, with just a little bit of mechanical advantage.
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Old 10-05-2016, 06:55   #2
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

most folks use a cheapo wheel mounted unit that doesnt really do the job, especially in brisk winds.
i managed to find a boat with a quadrant mounted burly autopilot, hydraulic, that actually keeps a course.
it was 15000 usd installed, and has fluxgate compasses and other lovelies that are not had with wheel mounted units.
you CAN use lines to tie of your wheel/tiller, that has been done most successfully in past by others. this method requires diligence.
good luck in your search for the ultimate otto pile it. i have that.
of course, as itis a sailboat, you can also go the windvane route--and i have seen those successfully made very cheaply of wood, on the beach near the mooring i used to use.......
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Old 10-05-2016, 07:26   #3
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

Lots of reasons why.

- Motor. Not only does it have to be powerful but also fast. A relatively small motor geared down could indeed twist your arm off but might take a few minutes to do it. On a sailboat to keep on course, avoid gybing or other potentially dangerous issues the motor at times will need to move the rudder a lot at a high rate. That will take a stronger, more expensive motor.

- Control. Sure you could set up an AP with simple control software but will end up with a boat that wanders around on course, uses a lot more electricity and generally performs poorly.

- Safety. See course changes above but also a powerful motor can damage the steering system if not properly limited.

- Small customer base. APs are not exactly a mass market item so production is high cost.
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Old 10-05-2016, 07:41   #4
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

Depending how much you like driving your boat, which is a task I do not like at all, your auto pilot might well be your single most important non critical system. I would happily drop $2000 on an autopilot before even considering upgrades like AIS or Electronic charts.

A good autopilot doesn't just steer in flat calm conditions but will keep your boat tracking through degrading weather conditions for days on end, while you focus on more important (and stimulating) tasks like navigating, cooking or playing computer games.

I had one of those wheel operated systems on my last boat and it wasn't great, basically it meant I needed two crew for any kind of extended sailing, one to steer and one to do other stuff.

My current boat has a ComNav 1001 and it works, maintenance free, day after day. It doesn't have any ECS feed, I don't really like the idea of a computer navigating for me, it just feeds off my compass. Once you've sailed on a boat with a cheap autopilot, you'll see why people are willing to spend some money on a good one.
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Old 10-05-2016, 07:46   #5
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

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Originally Posted by Ungvar View Post
Depending how much you like driving your boat, which is a task I do not like at all, your auto pilot might well be your single most important non critical system. I would happily drop $2000 on an autopilot before even considering upgrades like AIS or Electronic charts.

A good autopilot doesn't just steer in flat calm conditions but will keep your boat tracking through degrading weather conditions for days on end, while you focus on more important (and stimulating) tasks like navigating, cooking or playing computer games.

I had one of those wheel operated systems on my last boat and it wasn't great, basically it meant I needed two crew for any kind of extended sailing, one to steer and one to do other stuff.

My current boat has a ComNav 1001 and it works, maintenance free, day after day. It doesn't have any ECS feed, I don't really like the idea of a computer navigating for me, it just feeds off my compass. Once you've sailed on a boat with a cheap autopilot, you'll see why people are willing to spend some money on a good one.
ComNav 1001 ..... best on the market
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Old 10-05-2016, 08:35   #6
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

I love my Alpha 3000. It is very fast and draws less current than virtually all other autopilots. I have over 12K miles on him, aka "Dr. A".

I have a friend who had a Nordic 40 who had one. He added a Monitor Wind Vane to be sure he'd have back up self steering prior to commencing his circumnavigation. 28,000 miles later the paddle on the Monitor had never been in the water! The Alpha 3000 is simple, fast and reliable. My POV for what it's worth.
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Old 10-05-2016, 08:38   #7
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

Compared to the cost (financial & emotional) of the extra crew needed if one has to hand steer hour after hour after hour.... I'd say a good reliable pilot is the best value in yachting,
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Old 10-05-2016, 09:23   #8
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

Never had problems with our autopilots nor with our Aries. Use to go through a lot of boards for the Aries, but nothing else except replacing lines once in a blue moon. Our Robertson and our Autohelm(not sure they are made anymore) never let us down. Good, watertight installation all important, adjusting sails second most important to reduce loads on the pilots. Suzie Sixpack was a backup pilot, but she broke down a lot.
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Old 10-05-2016, 09:57   #9
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

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ComNav 1001 ..... best on the market
Great,reliable pilot-it will accept 0183,which is all you need for basic inputs from plotter or wind sensor-though I agree with Ungvar -re too much reliance on "puters" to change my course-dangerous IMHO.
If you want a very basic,inexpensive,steer my boat reliably, autopilot,the Comnav 1420 will do the job also.
The "failures" you hear about with a/p's are mostly due to the rudder drive components-wear & tear-as well as all too common poor choice of drive unit &/or poor installation.
I also hear of many "failures" that appear due to "inter-talk" between other eqpt. & pilot---needless doodads IMHO.
Any modern pilot is capable of steering a "steerable" boat nearly as well as a good helmsman & better than any human over a long distance.
The problem is rarely the electronics of the a/p.
Consult someone who has practical experience in installing & setting up an a/p. It is not a do it yourself or a salesman job to pick the correct drive unit for your boat. You may be able to install it OK,after you have been shown how by someone with serious practical experience.
But then--it's your$$$

Cheers/ Len
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Old 10-05-2016, 10:12   #10
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

Here is a podcast from Franz Amussen on the ardunio as an autopilot that now has a gps module. FYI

http://www.medsailor.com/sailing-in-...ino-autopilot/
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Old 10-05-2016, 13:35   #11
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

MidlifeCrisis: You are exactly right. A lot of cruisers have drunk the Kool-Aid, but that doesn't make it so. For a few hundred dollars you can buy a 12VDC linear drive that is better than the $1000+ "marine" drives, the amount of computer processing required is about at the Arduino level, magnetic heading and gyro and accelerometer sensors are dirt cheap components, and connect some drive transistors and you have the necessary hardware. The barrier to entry is the programming to pull all of the pieces together, which takes a lot of time and trial.

If you want such an autopilot head on over to PelagicAutopilot | Sailing Autopilot Technologies. I have been communicating with the engineer, Brian, for years and can unconditionally recommend his system. It is very basic - it just steers the boat really well. No fancy multi-display or designer case or network integration, it is all about the business of steering.

Greg
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Old 10-05-2016, 13:47   #12
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

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ComNav 1001 ..... best on the market
It is indeed. Have installed a number of them. The 1101 is a step up.
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Old 10-05-2016, 13:48   #13
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

You need to decide if this autopilot will be a long term hobby or do you just want a device that you can buy off the shelf. The hobby could be a lot of fun if you have the time.

I'm not sure what your steering configuration is. My boat has hydraulic steering and my experience with a Robertson autopilot that I installed in 1997 has been really excellent. It is still working great after nearly 20 years and yes it was expensive but it is not finicky and compared to the endless hours it has faithfully steered my boat in all conditions I'd say it was a super investment. I would not hesitate to recommend that brand. It has morphed into Simrad, I guess they bought the original company.
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Old 10-05-2016, 13:52   #14
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

If you want a bomb-proof, simple, and affordable electric autopilot, then you should check these out CPT AutoPilot.

CPT Autopilot Inc.

Now you are not going to tie the CPT AutoPilot into your Wind instrument and Iphone...but in 11,000nm of cruising, I never used all those functions anyway. All I wanted was an AutoPilot that will hold a compass course in calm and harsh sea conditions. My Woods Freeman cerca 1976 did that and will be replaced by a CPT before we head south again.
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Old 10-05-2016, 14:19   #15
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Re: Autopilots... Why are they so finicky, expensive?

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Now you are not going to tie the CPT AutoPilot into your Wind instrument and Iphone...but in 11,000nm of cruising, I never used all those functions anyway. All I wanted was an AutoPilot that will hold a compass course in calm and harsh sea conditions.
I use wind vane mode more often than compass mode unless I am near shore or have other reasons to keep a tight course.
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