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Old 07-10-2009, 00:13   #1
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PC-Based Central Electronics Package

I need to completely replace the electronics package in my boat. I'm thinking a PC-based solution would be best. I'm comfortable with PCs and networking and I have several extra laptops and an extremely-low-power micro-desktop that would be easy to convert to DC power.

Let me get into some background.

The masthead wind speed/direction sensor is broken, the water speed impeller is non-functional and the part needed hasn't been made in 10 years. The depth sounder works, but sees a lot of ghosts and jumps to extremely shallow readings every few minutes and then back to proper readings, but it's enough I can't set any sort of alarm or even really watch it without freaking myself out every few minutes.

The GPS onboard is a bit flaky- it's very old and loses sync with the GPS sats fairly often. My last trip was only 18 hours and I lost the GPS tracking a number of times, including some inopportune times and had to reboot the system while navigating an unfamiliar breakwater. The chartplotter it is integrated with is about 15 years old and has a very poor screen. Small and dim enough that I have to climb down the hatch during daylight hours to see the display and doesn't offer any sort of remote so I can see it from the helm, which is a huge issue to me.

My radar was made in 1982 and still works fine, but I'm constantly hitting my head on the huge box just inside the hatch. For a 10 inch screen, it has a 3 foot deep box with a huge heatsink projecting from the back and terrible headache-inducing green scan lines.

Anyway, my conclusion is that I want to replace ALL the gear. Depth sounder, water speed, wind speed and direction, GPS, chartplotter, radar and possibly interface with my raymarine autopilot if practical. Preferably, I would like it to be on a bright 15" screen.

Is there anything capable of this?

I'm aware there are free chartplotter software packages. I'm also aware that a $10,000 Raymarine system with multiple High-res screens on dedicated chartplotters that interface with all the bits.

Is there any PC-based setup capable of this sort of "nerve center" arrangement?

I was eyeing the MaxSea software, but i wasn't sure if anyone else had a better suggestion.

I'm comfortable up to and including some level of building a custom PCB to interpret signals and writing a limited amount of custom integration software if necessary, but I'm hardly a code monkey.

Anyway, thanks for all insight and discussion.
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Old 07-10-2009, 00:22   #2
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The follow-on question to this is... what electronics accessories would be compatible with said computer system. Temp/Depth/speed/wind transducers, radome, gps antenna, etc.

I'm aware that the PC-based Raymarine software can interface using their proprietary SeaTalk bus, but the Raymarine gear tends to lean to the very expensive side.

It would be nice because it can interface with my Raymarine autopilot.... but other options would be awesome.
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Old 08-10-2009, 14:57   #3
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Lots of discussion over in the Navigation forum on marine computers...

Cheapest option would be to find NMEA-0183 sailing instruments, since the interface matches up to RS-232 fairly well. You could also get a multi-input NMEA multiplexer with an RS-232, USB, or BlueTooth port to connect to your PC.

Whatever you do with the PC, strip it down to only essential software (including OS options) in order to get the boot times to a minimum, and make the system more stable.

You could go overboard and use all Linux software and compile your own stripped-down custom kernel, but that's not for the faint of heart.

But it is doable!

Thought I'd add that a NMEA-2000 system that has a built-in NMEA-0183 port. That way you'd have a single NMEA trunk up/down the boat, instead of home-running all the 0183 cables. Similarly (and somewhat cheaper), you could go with Raymarine ST-60+ instruments - SeaTalk runs are daisy-chained, and you could buy their SeaTalk-NMEA0183 bridge (or use the ST-60+ Graphics Display, which has an internal NMEA bridge). Surely other brands with a proprietary bus have a similar capability...
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Old 08-10-2009, 15:31   #4
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Good project, do it right:

  • start with a good NMEA mux; you might even need more than one depending on how many individual sensors you connect. You find them here: ShipModul Marine Electronics Get the AIS version with the NMEA-HS port.
  • you will probably need more NMEA outputs than the MUX supply. Use this if so: ShipModul Marine Electronics
  • good GPS: Furuno GP-32 or a newer Furuno model
  • good 2nd GPS: Garmin, cheapest with NMEA output
  • log, depth & wind: B&G Hydra is still the best but very expensive & involved. You can now get sensors that output NMEA directly (no display) so you connect them to the MUX directly.
  • good radar: Furuno Navnet 3D. Do with the chart plotter what you want but it's the radar quality and features that stand out.
  • PC: start testing with cheap Asus HA-1005. All should work with this. I would use MaxSea plus separate AIS program plus separate (free) software for displaying instruments.
  • Your VHF & SSB will probably like an NMEA feed for positioning and date/time info.
If you get the BlueTooth version of the NMEA MUX you could bring that Asus wherever you need it, but I would prefer some NMEA repeaters in the cockpit for the helmsman.

cheers,
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Old 09-10-2009, 01:45   #5
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Any suggestions on a good screen? I'm still torn between just finding the best screen and running it on an inverter, or shopping around specially for an LCD that takes a 12v input and rigging up a DC-DC 12v regulator from the 12v system on the boat.

I've found a few ultra-low power screens, designed to run under 20W of power, but they're all AC systems designed for home use.


Anyone know of a good "arm" to hold such a screen? I found a few great ones with vesa mounts for LCD screens, but I need to hang it from the cieling and most appear to be wall-mount or desk-clip models. I want free range of motion. Can extend to be a computer screen at the nav station, turn and move slightly to be the TV for guests and can swivel to poke through the hatch where it is visible from the helm.

I was thinking something like this

http://puregizmo.com/peerle-tv-lcd-p...r-lct101.shtml

But I don't know how to figure out the range of motion needed and I'd hate to resort to trial-and-error on a $150 purchase. :-)



Thoughts there?

I was hoping to go this route to save on budget. I liked Jedi's response, but it was edging toward the expensive side.

Does anyone have a recommendation for a decent tri-ducer kit (speed, depth, temp) as well as a wind-speed kit that won't break the bank?

That kit from Raymarine, along with the seatalk bus interpreter would run me about $3000, i think, which is pretty steep.

I saw some cheaper kids from TacTik, but I was hesitant, due to the nylon (rather than brass) through-hull mountings, though I already have some nylon through-hulls now, it's been on my list to stick with bronze if possible.

Too many things to consider! Too few manufacturers make this sort of combo kit and also support NMEA output.

Thoughts for the budget minded?

Free chartplotter software that might do this 'nerve center' operation from NMEA input? I think a few of them will do it and spent a few hours looking for it yesterday, but got lost in a bit of info overload from the google results. :-)


Thanks!!!
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Old 09-10-2009, 06:23   #6
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HobieFan,

You won't even settle for anything but bronze fittings but it must be cheaper than available on the market today??!! The only possibility I see is to buy 2nd hand then.

Even the B&G transducers use plastic thru-hull and sensor fittings.

Raymarine has nothing to be recommended imo, plus they use Airmar sensors like everyone else so why not buy those directly with the NMEA output? Here they are:

Airmar Marine Products Home Page

We use a Dell 24" LCD computer screen for both navstation computer and entertainment, but not for view from outside. We were able to modify it's regular stand so that it's mounted onto the navstation and can swivel all around to the salon. For big screens like that there isn't any incentive to modify for 12V.

Look at the Asus EeeTop PC's which are screens with Eee Atom built in.

All the software I know supports the NMEA input. May be not all of them will display data like log or depth, but MaxSea does. Don't think MaxSea is too expensive before meeting and talking to cruisers who have been out there with computer navigation.

cheers,
Nick.
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Old 09-10-2009, 07:42   #7
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Judging from the information you need in the cockpit, rather than at a nav station, you should consider a modern Multifunction Display (MFD)-centric rather than a PC- centric system. NMEA 0183 is a problem-laden comm protocol, which is why there is so much excitement about NMEA 2000. A little research will tell you some of the problems. "Tower of Babel" is an overstatement, but expresses the difficulties in getting through the proprietary sentences used by different manufacturers.

I believe that fully water-proofed and sunlight-readable instruments are an absolute imperative for safety reasons. Kluged household PC paraphernalia are an invitation to disaster when you may already be in crisis.

Going with a MFD is cheaper in the long run when you consider the price tag of a sunlight-readable Monitor, the time required to build an integrated PC-based system and the limited choices of equipment (as in Radar) that are available.

I began my electronic navigation experience with laptops, and still build my own boat computers, but I chose Garmin for my helm. Things are reliable, redundant, and waterproof. The XP-based kernel and near bullet-proof system is easily and frequently upgraded, and I only have to call one help desk when things go bump in the night. And when I'm turning into a strange port in deteriorating weather and driving rain, I don't have to worry about how well I chose or built every little nitpicking part, wire, software, power supply, or connector, ad infinitum. So:

Totaling up the bottom line, giving enough weight to the safety issue, and learning from the experience of a lot of smart people, I strongly suggest you go with a Garmin MFD and network, with radar, satellite weather, AIS and DSC already integrated and seamlessly displayed. Further, I suggest (since you are starting with a blank slate) that you go to NMEA 2000 (N2K) transducers wherever possible, and keep a computer in the link for communication, back-up processes and gee-whiz stuff. I have two separate computer systems on board: a purpose-built PC that sips 12VDC, has a bad-assed wifi antenna system, and monitors both the N2K and 0183 networks, and an ASUS netbook that can go ashore in a big baggie. Even the ASUS can navigate!

Navigation and instrumentation is not a place for hobby gadgetry.
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Old 09-10-2009, 07:57   #8
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Furuno has a blackbox system that allows you to plug in large screen, high resolution monitors. You are not stuck with those smallish, low resolution very expensive proprietary monitors. The black box itself (MFD-BB) is expensive, but on the the other hand you save on monitor costs. For an external monitor, you will need a waterproof, daylight monitor. I have this system onboard and am very happy with it.
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Old 09-10-2009, 08:19   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sandy daugherty View Post
Judging from the information you need in the cockpit, rather than at a nav station, you should consider a modern Multifunction Display (MFD)-centric rather than a PC- centric system. NMEA 0183 is a problem-laden comm protocol, which is why there is so much excitement about NMEA 2000. A little research will tell you some of the problems. "Tower of Babel" is an overstatement, but expresses the difficulties in getting through the proprietary sentences used by different manufacturers.

I believe that fully water-proofed and sunlight-readable instruments are an absolute imperative for safety reasons. Kluged household PC paraphernalia are an invitation to disaster when you may already be in crisis.

Going with a MFD is cheaper in the long run when you consider the price tag of a sunlight-readable Monitor, the time required to build an integrated PC-based system and the limited choices of equipment (as in Radar) that are available.

I began my electronic navigation experience with laptops, and still build my own boat computers, but I chose Garmin for my helm. Things are reliable, redundant, and waterproof. The XP-based kernel and near bullet-proof system is easily and frequently upgraded, and I only have to call one help desk when things go bump in the night. And when I'm turning into a strange port in deteriorating weather and driving rain, I don't have to worry about how well I chose or built every little nitpicking part, wire, software, power supply, or connector, ad infinitum. So:

Totaling up the bottom line, giving enough weight to the safety issue, and learning from the experience of a lot of smart people, I strongly suggest you go with a Garmin MFD and network, with radar, satellite weather, AIS and DSC already integrated and seamlessly displayed. Further, I suggest (since you are starting with a blank slate) that you go to NMEA 2000 (N2K) transducers wherever possible, and keep a computer in the link for communication, back-up processes and gee-whiz stuff. I have two separate computer systems on board: a purpose-built PC that sips 12VDC, has a bad-assed wifi antenna system, and monitors both the N2K and 0183 networks, and an ASUS netbook that can go ashore in a big baggie. Even the ASUS can navigate!

Navigation and instrumentation is not a place for hobby gadgetry.
Great post. Running the boat on the rocks to save $2K makes no sense to me.
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Old 09-10-2009, 20:33   #10
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Great post. Running the boat on the rocks to save $2K makes no sense to me.
I tend to agree. I've thought (and you've reinforced) that my helm unit will likely be a standalone single dedicated unit, capable of being used on it's own.

I'm still going to go the PC route for less intense situations, since I'll have a PC onboard ANYWAY. I'm thinking that the free software will suffice for now.

I'm going to buy a kit of sensors that has independent displays.

the NMEA protocols for communicating with the PC will all be part of the "nice to have" system, with dedicated electronics for the "must have" component.

Thanks all for the input.
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Old 09-10-2009, 22:04   #11
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Basic problem for PC navigation is electricity. I don't have the powr to run the PC all that much so everytime it boots it takes 2 mins or more to when the nav programs get functional. 2 mins is a long way at 6 kts.

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Old 09-10-2009, 22:28   #12
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You should probably look into the integrated sleep modes on most computers. In sleep mode, most computers draw under 1W and resume instantly.

Suspend mode requires no power and on a bare Windows XP machine with a good solid state disk should be able to power up in under 15 seconds.

No reason to ever "shut down" the PC, except to occasionally reboot for stability.

:-)
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Old 10-10-2009, 01:13   #13
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Don't waste money on overpriced marine industry items. They can fail, too. If you use an industrial pc without fan and hdd then you would in fact be using the exact same hardware thats in the inflationarily priced chartplotters, and thus have the same electricity expenditure. Plus you have the advantages of using proper navigation software and having full future-proofness.

Quote:
NMEA 0183 is a problem-laden comm protocol, which is why there is so much excitement about NMEA 2000. A little research will tell you some of the problems.
Regarding NMEA0183 vs NMEA2000, the exact opposite appears to be true from my research. NMEA0183 has become widely accepted and has been in usage for years. For NMEA2000, every single manufacturer is trying to monopolise plugs etc, that's Babel material really!

Regarding the sensors, I'd pick affordable NMEA (0183!) based units, for instance these ones or this nava wind sensor; overall, you won't just be saving money, but also gaining in features and upgradeability. These can be fed into Navmonpc (free), Seaclear (free), or any number of commercial navigation packages with feature sets chartplotters can't begin to dream about..

The pampered marine electronics manufacturers have had their lot!
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Old 23-10-2009, 06:39   #14
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Maretron and N2K...no radar or chart plotter but they have everything else. I have a Raymarine E80 and all Maretron sensors. Works very well.
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Old 23-10-2009, 07:27   #15
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I had a Raymarine system...radar at the helm and chartplotter at the nav station with overlay capability. A lightning strike blew the hsb interconnection so the radar and chartplotter still worked...just couldn't overlay. I decided to keep them as a backup and since I already had a Nobeltec nav program on my laptop I purchased a 10" touchscreen monitor to control the Nobeltec program from the helm.

For the last three years this system has worked well but not without a few crashes which take a couple minutes to reboot. Last time it happened this past summer motoring slowly through a switchback channel when the icon stopped moving and a reboot was needed. Yes, we strayed out of the channel, but no harm.

Bottom line:
I'm keeping the laptop with Nobeltec/laptop below for redundancy and replacing the 8 yr old Raymarines with the Raymarne E90W with HD/Digital radar. Ray, Garmin or any of the others are much more robust than a windows-based laptop, in my estimation.

Ronbo
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