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March 19, 2009

High-Tech Acceleration

Marine electronics leap light years in three decades

"The biggest development for us was the digital fish finder in 2003," says Jim Hands, senior marketing manager for Raymarine. "Analog has fixed-bandwidth filters. Digital has infinite receiver bandwidth filters, and that eliminates clutter. It brings every inch of the water column into focus. Even when the picture is tuned to show a beautiful bottom image, the bait higher up in the water column is still clear."

Digital processing also helps units adapt to changing conditions, allowing users to operate them in a very basic, automatic mode.

DSP also greatly changed radar, as has solid-state technology. In late 2008, Navico announced its new "broadband radar," representing the "biggest leap in technology with radar over the past 60 years," Simrad's Comyns says. "This radar no longer uses a magnetron, which had a finite life span and required warm-up. Broadband radar is instant when you switch it on. It uses much less power and transmits at a much lower level (1/10 of a watt versus 2,000 watts). It's much safer for users."

Chemi says that instead of sending out a huge "bang" then listening, the broadband radar sends out a   continuous quiet signal at various frequencies and listens simultaneously. "It will improve the accuracy and   reliability of the product, offer better target resolution and emit 1/10 the power of a cell phone," he says.

Other late-decade innovations include the 2005 introduction of consumer-priced side-imaging sonar from Humminbird, touch-screen technology from Garmin in '07 and NavNet 3D last year from Furuno.

"Using NOAA raster and vector charts, we put them through a digitization process, allowing them to become three-dimensional. It has a kind of Google-Earth effect to it. We're able to graphically see farther ahead without having to go up in range," says Atteridge. "To be able to lay it down in 3-D allows you to see in a much more natural way, a native way. With 2-D you're looking down on the chart. With 3-D, you're able to manipulate the chart in a horizontal mode."

Some have likened the 3-D view to a flight simulator. It most certainly changes the way we look at navigation.

And Beyond ?
So what may we see in the next decade? Everyone we asked said they see no major quantum leaps forthcoming; rather they anticipate refinements to graphic presentations and ease of use. Looking farther down the road - to the end of the next three decades - would require something more powerful than a crystal ball or Nostradamus' quatrains.

"My view is that the next piece we have to do is integrate all the information into helping anglers make better decisions," Chemi says. "We've got to get to where we help consumers make decisions about where they have the best chance for catching fish."

But would that eventually eliminate the human element and make fishing too easy? "That's what they said about the fish finder," Chemi retorts. "That was going to make fishing too easy. Then satellite images were going to make it too easy. Well, go out and try that and tell me how easy it is.

"Yes, it does make it easi-er, but there are always new horizons. I'm confident we'll find others."