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Old 02-05-2006, 07:00   #1
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Free navigation software

Hello all,
As a software developer I am interested in your wishes concerning navigation software. I'm in the process of writing a new navigation program. At first for myself, but lately I think I should make it available to the community (for free). But then it has to be usefull to many people, not only for myself.
Hence my question: what features should a navigation program have, which map formats should be supported, what information should be where in the screen, etc, etc.
Please share your opinion about this..
Jan Peter
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Old 02-05-2006, 07:58   #2
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Navigation Software

Jan,

Are you aware of SeaClear (http://www.sping.com/seaclear/)? It was started by someone who wrote it for himself and now offers it for free.

To answer your question, I would expect it to handle the BSB charts downloadable from NOAA. Another feature that it should have is to be simple to use with a small touch screen, in other words big buttons and no need for right-mouse clicks.

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Old 02-05-2006, 10:27   #3
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There is a paucity of programmes suitable for use with CM93 charts. Add in tidal currents and voyage optimisation, and even better, ability to overlay Grib weather and add those into the optimisation, and you would have a winner!
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Old 02-05-2006, 11:02   #4
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C-Map CM-93 format charts are now specialist commercial-use-only and ECDIS systems from previous technologies, and for all intents and purposes, have been superseded by the MAX charts and the NT+ (cartridges) and NT/PC (computer CDs) format C-MAP charts.
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Old 02-05-2006, 13:32   #5

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Jan, something that "should" be in nav software would be interactive routing with consideration for currents. After all, that's donkey work and the donkey (computer) should be doing it, not the human. But surprisingly, there are commercial packages that will do routing (including run times) and show currents--but they make no effort at integrating the currents into the routing information, making the time estimates worthless.

I'd also like to see a "What if" solution for routing. For instance, "What if" I want to run from the Battery (south tip of Manhattan) to City Island, which means running up the East River and through Hell's Gate. I know my boat speed, the program knows the currents, so it should be able to tell me "leave at...for the fastest passage" and automatically consider the current boost I will get in order to make that fastest passage. (And given the length of the run and the reverse of current, it will need to consider current boost and current drag both, optimizing where I am along the route.)

That's something I haven't seen, in my limited experience with nav software. Obviously other variables and what-if's could be done too.
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Old 02-05-2006, 13:34   #6
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Gord accurately states the status of the C-MAP format. You sort of have to pick and choose the formats you support as there are too many to actually support all the features. ENC Vector format and BSB/KAP raster format are probably the two other popular formats. The entire US is available free for both these formats. with at least the two raster formats you could have a product that would work for most of the world.

You'll want NMEA in and out supported at minimum. I would start with serial com support but work towards USB interface support.

AIS is getting common. Overlay support is difficult to develop without a serious pot of money to help you with all the gear required for testing.

I would start with SeaClear II as at least a benchmark of the best of the free software applications. They all suffer from fairly awkward user interfaces, limited features and not very user friendly. That being the case it is almost impossible to produce a decent product through the efforts of one programmer. SeaClear has a 10 year history. It took a while to get off the ground, 4 years for the last major update and continues to fall farther behind. The last update was about a year ago. At best I would call it a "tedious" product to use but the only serious effort to date.

Launching an Open Source project would be a better approach to this if you expect to have anything really worth using. A group effort might be possible as a way to produce something that actually was in the class of the commercial products. With the growth in new instrument technologies the ability to integrate all that support is getting harder and harder for one person to manage.

My own opinion is all the free charting software isn't worth actually using considering the importance of the role it fills on a boat and the low cost of the existing products that are far better. To that extent I think you have the whole free charting software market open to you.

In other areas tide software has a great free product http://wxtide32.com is very nice tide program for all tide stations around the world with a nice map and graphical interface. It is free and continues to be supported with updated tide prediction models. I would avoid duplicating these types of features when they are already available.
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Old 02-05-2006, 15:07   #7
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Paul

wxtide32.com only provides tide height data. whilst of some value, it is the current information that is so valuable, and should be a part of the optimisation process.


Gord - well aware of the status of the different C-Map ctgs (I have NT+ plotter), but also aware of the number of cruisers who are using a cm93 system.
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Old 02-05-2006, 16:53   #8
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So what should a developer write for?

When you compare the various chart standards there are flat out more than any single package can support and that includes the highest priced commercial packages. Nothing does it all. writing to both vector and raster alone takes a great effort. There is a huge growth in instrumentation integrated interfaces with a trend towards unified proprietary network sytems. Raytech isn't opening up the standards any time soon. So RayTechRSN 5.0 is going to set you back $1,600 US (charts not included).

The market is pretty fractured when you consider what is left.

Quote:
wxtide32.com only provides tide height data. whilst of some value, it is the current information that is so valuable, and should be a part of the optimisation process.
Some times the free lunch counter isn't totally satisfying. It's not rational to think you'll get something free that does what a commercial product does. My basic point still is you don't get enough in any of the free products for the whole job becuase it just is a hard thing to produce for free.
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Old 03-05-2006, 06:04   #9
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Some things which I would like to see... don't know if any software has these things are:


Two windows... a small and large showing a detail of the "big picture" and the detail area of navigation. The small window can be the detail view or the larger area. Zoon scales are each user settable ... not specific fixed levels of maginification. You can flip off the small view at any time to unclutter screen.

I would like to see all Nav Aids "light up" with their actual characteristics. A red flashing 2 seconds who show on the chart as a red "light" flashing two seconds for example. Also the range of a light or nav aid would show when YOUR vessel came within range.. a riong perhaps would appear indicating the outer limit of the range. Racons etc would show their characterisitcs when you can within range.

I would also like a current feature which indicates the current with vectors. Some charting software has this feature. A wind vector over lay feature would be welcome too.

I like the idea of turning the features on and off like "CAD" layers so that you can graphically process as much of the data on the screen as you want.

Why can't many of these features be programmed into stand alone plotters and are always part of PC nav software?
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Old 03-05-2006, 06:43   #10
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defjef,

For features like you are talking about you'll need a ssytem that is vector based with multiple overlays. Curently there isn't much out there in that area. Raytech has not gone to vector based charts because of the overlay technology they already have. They basically overlayy anything with everything and they don't support any vector based data. This is a feature in the commercial shipping systems but they are exceptionally expensive.

To overlay an ATON would require something like an ENC map base as the ENC charts actually have the aid characteristics embedded as data as well as the actual lat / long of the bouy. Raster charts are just a picture with the corners tied to lat / long. It could be a picture of your mom for all the software knows. This level of functionality isn't out there mostly becuase some things really are hard. Peronally, I'm not sure a properly flashing bouy on my chart is something I really need and would prefer not to have a gong .

The trend is to build all the features into the chart plotters. RayTech already does and if you look at all the new high end plotters they do add more than they used to. They also use proprietary charts or if they support non proprietary charts they don't let you use all the features that they only integrate into the proprietary data. They really want the extra money.
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Old 03-05-2006, 06:50   #11
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Those features are all present on Winchart Nexus. but the software will not work unless you attach a dongle to the USB port. I wont accept a potential point of failure like this.

The software uses C-Map charts.
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Old 03-05-2006, 07:36   #12
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I find it interesting that Winchart had it's last update two years ago. I downloaded the Nautiq demo.

It has many things about the look and feel I do like. The actual chart display is far better than many. It is however a commercial product. It's not something you'll see for free. It also supports the C-Map variations and no other formats. That means you'll need another product for serious global navigation. You can't get one format for every place. No product out there has that ability yet.

The overaly I assume is NMEA input except the drift? Drift estimates are a bit unreliable as they are based on generic models and not something you can actually measure from the boat. In that way I don't see them of great value since they can be missleading. Other than the course projection I found the overlay display dustracting but you can trun each compnent on and off so that part is nice. It's great if you fly a fighter jet faster than the speed of sound.

The demo didn't show much as far as all the other functions so it's hard to know what those are like but I would assume the do the basic route making and track displays.

3D seems to be getting a lot of play these days. My own package has a 3D display and I find that to be a very useless feature, though I like to play routes in 3D at 150 knots for fun. When you think of using a display while underway you really can't deal with all the 3D efects easily and often I find them confusing where a 2 D chart shows the full data clearly. The 3D display interpolates so much to make the display it deceives you into thinking the data is more accurate than it really is. The demo hung the computer when I went into 3D mode. #D takes a whole lot more horsepower and it isn't all that compatibale with many computers. I would avoid it as a factor in any purchase.

Given the age of the program the use of dongles is pretty much to be expected. It was pretty state of the art for 2003.

You may consider it a point of failure but they would see it as a point license enforcement. These days there are better software based protection systems that work as well, though the dongle would let you move from computer to computer so in that way I would see it as an advantage. The alternative is an online regiatration. If you expect to get a commercial product and have the ease of installing unrestricted as much as you like I don't think you will find any products out there that do that.

The whole software license process has been refined a lot but it's for the publishers benefit alone. Sure you don't have to buy it but these days they would rather send you along your way than give it up. It's not going to change until we get a better system of certificates that can be used on a personal level. That really would free us from all the license hoop la.
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Old 03-05-2006, 07:43   #13
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Paul,

I understand the general issues... for example programming of each nav aid characteristics is something which is not available in raster scanned charts.

My wish list was what should be done with digital based nav software. If you look at google maps, they have the two window deal and you can see how handy it is.

As far as layers, I learned how they can work after using a CAD program called VectorWorks which uses layers which can be turned on and off and moved up and down, or rearranged in the stack of layers.

The concept of scanned raster charts used in digital navigation is rather archaic and backward looking. These charts were created by drawing using data assembled in the field survey. Today many surveys are done using digital technology including GPS and there is no reason why this should not be the standard.

I suppose one of the main problems is that NOAA must create and issue digitally based charts which any chart plotter can use and any navigation software can use. Having all sorts of competing proprietary charts is simply too stupid to mention. Have we not learned anything yet from the BetaMax VHS disaster. I suppose not, the USA has its own TV standard, cell phone standards and so on. Why can't NOAA and NEMA or whomever get together and develop a universal digital chart format/standard?

For the time being, I am sticking with designated chart plotter until a better mousetrap is offered.
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Old 03-05-2006, 08:34   #14
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Having delved into some of the free software pieces, here are my nits and wants:

Start with ENC (free from NOAA!!) and support other formats as they are requested as people have already paid for these and the support software/hardware anyway. Give better features and you get converts.

Basic functional layers - I want the ability to turn on/off any layer at will without someone elses best guess to what I want. Less user friendly sure, but more practical to the experienced user.

Either adjustible fonts, or better lableing (esp. aids to nav) or put extraneous info on another layer. Current offerings get way more cluttered than paper

Improved depth contours - I like to plan and nav at a farily large scale esp. in familiar waters, but then most contours are not shown. Maybe move to a gradient coloration, or simply set color changes at given depths. Make this user selectible is even better.

Improved graphics loading - Attempt to preferentially load only those required for the nav area.

Standard NEMA interface

Efficient waypoint interface - Allow for spreadsheet inport/export or CSV text file in/out. Waypoints are easier to deal with in this format for other than position input. Better yet, imbeded spreadsheet GUI for WPs.

Good routing information - Time/speed/distance/eta etc.. in a printable format (backup, just like paper charts). Maybe put this into a float plan format?

Give me some more time and I can probably come up with some more. Also take a look at some of the airplane flight planning software and what they offer in terms of displays, routing, searching for airports/navaids, etc..

Best of luck on the project,
Bill
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Old 03-05-2006, 13:32   #15
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@Ron_Fran:
Up till now SeaClear is my preferred program for navigation. It has some nice features (e.g. scanning your own paper charts), but, greedy geezer that I am, I want MORE.
The small screen factor is a good one, as I'm currently saving up for an Ultra Mobile PC like the Samsung Q1 or the Asus R2H. Great little machines for use on board.

@Talbot:
The Grib weather overlay is something already on my list...

@CordMay:
The plan is to be able to at least use the CMAP NT+ and NT/PC chartsets. I prefer vector based maps, and the CMAP version has world wide coverage. Still I want to be able to use raster charts as well. Anyone who can name me a raster set with worlwide coverage?

@hellosailer:
Incorporating the currents in the calculations is a great plan that allows for all kinds of dead reckoning navigation. It is also a very difficult subject, since we are talking about a dynamic process. As the currents constantly change as a function of time it would take awesome amounts of processing power to calculate the fastest route. Feature noted. Do you by the way know of electronicly available current-data? (I would need tuples of time-offset, position, speed of current, direction of current)

@Pblais:
Thanks for suggesting the BSB/KAP raster formats, I'll look into that, as well as the ENC vector format.
Primary focus will be on the NMEA protocol as most hardware can use this. At least here in Europe.
The program will have a very modular architecture. This should allow for all kinds of hardware to be attached: serial port, USB, bluetooth are on my wish list.
AIS support would be great especially in very busy areas like the entrance to the port of Rotterdam which is in my neighbourhood. The pot of money is the problem though...
In regard to your notes about SeaClear: it is indeed my reference application. I think it is a great program, and not so tedious once you get used to it.
I'm currently investigating the pros and cons of starting an OpenSource project, and I'm looking into some licencing options. Anyone got ideas about that?
The programming language of choice is Java. Java is available for the most widely used operating systems. It is also the language I know... It might also be an obstruction to creating a very flashy user interface, but in this my principle is: function above form. Who cares that a button looks a bit square, without rounded corners. Even with a square button some tediousness may be avoided.
I agree to your point about the low price of commercial software. But my main drive to start a project like this is that I can make things as I want them, and that in doing that I am not dependent on someone else's view of what features are necessary and which are not.
And about the $1600 RayTech solution: beautifull product, but not everybody has that amount of money in the pocket. By creating a product using open protocols that can be run on a wide variaty of cheap hardware will hopefully enable 'the poor' among us to navigate safely.
Maybe a spinnoff of this software project should be to create a database of free maritime data sources. This should enable enthousiasts to use this sources for their own projects, leading eventually to loads of free or cheap products that can be used as an alternative to the professional products.

@defjef:
Your idea of navigational aids lighting up in their true characteristic is great! I could even create some sort of 3D view showing what you should see at night standing in your cockpit. (Pblais: whistles and horns ok?
I've seen the layers feature in other software, and it looks great. Just adding AIS, current-vectors, GRIB, radar layers by pushing a button. As Pblais commented this would require vector charts

@williamlathan:
I agree with you in the better depth contour department, but there is a point in Pblais' statement about the display deceiving you in suggested accuracy. My main sailing area is in the Waddenzee, a sea that emptys twice a day. As you may suspect that gives lots of current that displaces enormous amounts of sand. Give us a good storm and the deeper areas have moved hundreds of meters. Since a chart, be it a paper or an electronic one, is always a snapshot of the situation at a given time. When you navigate through these waters with your fancy 3D bothom profile, even on the newest chart you are bound to hit sand when your device tells you there is enough depth.
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