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March 19, 2009

High-Tech Acceleration

Marine electronics leap light years in three decades

"[Loran-C] still wasn't hugely accurate, though it was quite repeatable," says Simrad brand-marketing director Paul Comyns. "If you knew where a certain part of the wreck was, you could always go back to the same spot; it was an actual real position.

"However, around dusk, it went a little haywire because it suffered signal degradation from the moon and sun."

While anyone fishing a large or small vessel needed a fish finder and loran unit for success and safety, small-boat anglers in the 1980s thought very little about autopilots and radar. But those products were evolving and would eventually make their way to the center-console boat market.

In the autopilot realm, Simrad, or rather Robertson, a company Simrad purchased, created the first         microprocessor-based autopilot, the AP100, in the early 1980s, Comyns says. At that time, a microprocessor chip had somewhere around 275,000 transistors and could process about 5 million instructions per second. (A Pentium 4 chip in 2004 carried 125 million transistors and processed 7  billion instructions per second.)

"Before, autopilots were analog systems," Comyns says. "The AP100 allowed us to utilize a position fed in from a nav source. By the late '80s,  we could hook up to a plotter or   navigator and steer a nav line."

In 1986, Furuno developed the first "bird" radar sensitive enough to pick up avian targets, according to Jim Atteridge, president of Furuno USA. Those first powerful units definitely catered to the high-end sport-fishing market. "What made the biggest difference with Furuno radars was receiver sensitivity," Atteridge says.

As anglers accumulated various pieces of marine-electronic equipment, the industry began considering ways to network those units so they could talk to each other. At the end of the '70s, initial attempts were made to connect loran-C receivers to auto-pilots, according to the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA).

Early autopilots followed a compass heading, but course errors could develop under way due to crosswinds and currents, variation and deviation issues, or magnetic-field disturbances. Adding loran could correct course errors. But the loran needed to speak the same language as the autopilot or at least work through an interpreter.

Enter the NMEA 0180 standard in 1980. Revisions followed in 1982, '83, '84, '87 and throughout the 1990s before the implementation of the current NMEA 2000 standard.

Manufacturers too began developing their own communication protocols so they could link their machines together. Autohelm, a company owned by Raymarine (previously Raytheon) won several international awards in 1989 for its SeaTalk digital communications protocol.

But the NMEA standard offered one highly attractive quality: It allowed consumers to choose and interface the disparate brands they wanted to buy.