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March 19, 2009

High-Tech Acceleration

Marine electronics leap light years in three decades

By 1994, 24 satellites orbited the Earth. In the next decade, seven more would come online and further improvements would be made to signal quality: In the mid-1990s, the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration developed the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a network of ground stations and satellites to correct errors in the GPS signal. And in 2000, the federal government turned off "Selective Availability," a feature the military used to introduce  minor errors to the civilian system for security reasons.

GPS and faster microprocessors quickly advanced the realm of chart plotting. Hardware emerged first, but the advent of vector-chart software changed the mariner's entire view. (Vector marine charts are representations of maps drawn by a software program; raster charts are digital pictures of paper charts.)

Furuno's first "video" plotter emerged in 1971, but without electronic charts, it proved limited. "It was a green phosphorous CRT screen and would show the ship's position on the screen, draw a trail and keep it in memory. It was mostly used for commercial fishing," Furuno's Atteridge says.
In 1984, Navionics, one of today's leading electronic-chart companies, formed to market vector charts; a year later, one of the company's partners left to start another industry leader, C-MAP. "Twenty-five years ago, microprocessors were painfully slow by today's standards," a Navionics time line reads, "and vector electronic charts were basically stick maps of a coastline with a simple representation of navigation symbols and a limited  geographic area of coverage."

Early plotters showed a picture of land masses with depth contours and navigation aids. Users could zoom in and out, check distance and bearing, mark locations and lay out a course.

Throughout the '90s, faster processors allowed more memory and quicker redraws, which allowed more chart detail and functionality. Chart companies bulked up their location databases to provide ever-greater  area coverage. And just as in the consumer-electronics industry, prices dropped so the majority of people could afford the products.

At the same time, those chunky CRT displays gave way to first monochrome and later sunlight-viewable color LCD screens. "The CRT was such a large component that required high voltage and a lot of mechanical engineering," Furuno's Atteridge says. "LCD panels operate at lower power and are smaller and thinner."

LCDs allowed anglers to see their fish finders from the cockpit, Navico's Chemi adds. "Rather than someone having to stand holding a cardboard shade over their head to see what's on the fish finder, with the LCD's gain, resolution and color  contrast, you were able see things in bright sunlight."

Also in the 1990s, as global marine traffic increased, so did safety regulations. The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System was implemented throughout the commercial industry. It spawned the regular use of equipment such as EPIRBs and VHF Digital Selective Calling, which allowed recreational VHF users to send distress signals that automatically identified their vessels. Later connection of DSC through GPS would provide rescuers the vessel position.

In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an order requiring radios approved after June 1999 to include minimal DSC capability.