Digital Yacht has launched a new box of electronic wizardry, the iKommunicate, to expand the networking capabilities of your boat. According to the website, it is an "NMEA to Signal K gateway which brings the internet of things to anything afloat and will introduce a new generation of interfacing and applications to the marine electronics world".
Say what? Well, the Internet of Things is perhaps easier to understand in the domestic environment. In a few years' time, your brand new fridge may well be an Internet-enabled device with its own IP address. So might your oven and your dishwasher. Sensors within each device might trigger messages, such as: “low on milk”, “door left open”, “need a clean (running inefficiently)”, “using wrong detergent”. These messages could create an email, SMS or tweet, or even add an item to your online shopping list. Within the next few years, you could be at the supermarket, communicating with your fridge to see what you need to buy. It’s the Internet of Things.
Now take that technology and transfer it to your boat and its equipment: your mooring buoy, your marina berth, your fuel tanks, wind instruments and depth gauge. Fun, of course, but imagine what use this technology could be for a charter fleet manager, a fishery patrol boat, a race officer or a sailing school. It's all technically possible already, but there's a problem: the National Marine Electronics Association – NMEA.
The existing methods of connecting marine electronics is via NMEA protocols – the language or code. NMEA is a US-based organisation that charges a license fee for any use of its protocols. NMEA0183 is gradually being phased out in favour of NMEA2000, but NMEA2000 is limited to 50 devices on a single network and transmits at a maximum of 256 kilobits per second. That is 30 seconds per Megabyte. 4G mobile signals now offer 10 times that rate as standard with maximum rates far higher.
Signal K and iKommunicate
So a new protocol is needed that will permit much larger networks to communicate at much higher speeds. Ideally it should be “open source” – free for anyone to use – and easily readable by a web server and a mobile device. Signal K fulfils all the above criteria and has even been acknowledged by NMEA as a "method that allows both large and small mobile app developers to get involved in NMEA networking [via a certified gateway]". For anyone in need of a deep technical explanation, check out the Signal K website.
But all existing marine electronics are NMEA (or proprietary versions of NMEA) only. Which is where iKommunicate comes in. It is like a wireless receiver for your boat, sending and receiving Signal K, translated from, and to, NMEA.
According to Nick Heyes at Digital Yacht, the next generation of instruments will be Signal K ready. "Signal K is intended to be used not only for communication between instruments and sensors on board a single vessel but also to allow for sharing of data between multiple boats, aids to navigation, ports, marinas etc. It is designed to be easily implemented by web and mobile applications and to connect boats and ships to the Internet of Things.
“By taking data from the “closed” industry standard networks found on most boats and converting it to an “open” HTML5 based internet ready data format, a whole new world of social and connected boating will now be possible.
“At Digital Yacht, we firmly believe that a low cost, certified NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 to Signal K Gateway [iKommunicate] will be the catalyst to start implementing this new interface standard. Making it easy for developers to access existing boat data, without burdening them with certification or documentation costs will encourage natural organic growth.”
Of course, tablet and mobile phone displays already exist for marine electronics, but these are proprietary apps with a limited number of possible developers. As the iTunes store and Google Play platforms have shown over the last few years, freely available protocols and interfaces are the best way of enabling game-changing creative potential.
Nick Heyes initially foresees a proliferation of graphic interfaces available to tablet and phone users on board individual boats, and various methods of automatically creating deep, detailed logs of past voyages. Engine data could also be a big growth area with revs, temperature, fuel flow and efficiency logs all being uploaded to a cloud-based application (probably manufacturer specific), which will then warn you if problems are slowly emerging, or with the ability to devise an individualised servicing schedule.
Eventually, buoys, lighthouses, marinas, shipping would all be transmitting and receiving data via Signal K servers. “You might see a buoy with a wind sensor, or a marina transmitting its lock gate times, basically connecting everything to everything,” says Heyes. “That’s what the Internet of Things is all about.”
The iKommunicate is retailing for £220 + VAT and existing NMEA-sharing apps such as Active Captain, NMEA Remote and Boat Beacon have already developed Signal K portals – ready to go. If take-up is as strong as expected, apps should appear on iTunes App store and Google Play, usable on all types of devices, including laptops.
For more new equipment reviews, see: 20 hottest new items of sailing kit for 2016.