In a world that is more connected than ever before, it’s easy to check our yachts are safe and sound from afar with remote boat monitoring
Remote boat monitoring tech for peace of mind
Technology is flooding aboard our boats. From keeping an eye on your battery levels to reminding you that an item of equipment on board needs servicing, the connected boat is one of the big trends for the future and remote boat monitoring technology is a key trend.
There are all sorts of claims for this technology and like everything, they need careful picking through. At its most basic, remote monitoring has been available on boats for more than a decade.
Remote boat monitoring usually consists of a black box fitted somewhere below decks with several sensors reporting into it from around the boat. These can be both wired or wireless and sometimes a blend of the two.
Costs begin at £340 for the most basic C-pod unit that simply reports your GPS position. For £500-600, you can get a battery of sensors and for video imagery, you’re looking at more than £1,000.
The box takes the data gathered from the sensors and sends it via the internet to an app on your phone or tablet. Some units employ an outdated 3G mobile phone connection, which is nevertheless sufficient for transmitting small packets of simple data. Others use 4G and, no doubt, 5G in due course.
Some can use marina wireless too, and even satellite communications, via a dedicated transceiver – handy in out-of-the-way places.
The sensors and the options that you pick will depend entirely on what you’re trying to achieve on board.
Almost all these systems begin with a black box CPU which attaches to your house battery, typically drawing about 30mA current. That means it munches through three-quarters of an amp-hour every day.
Only BoatOfficer units contain their own batteries for months of autonomous operation. Thanks to this power connection, the default capability of almost every system is to detect battery voltage, giving you a warning when it drops to a critical level.
Naturally, this is useful information that can give you timely warning of a failed shore-power connection if your boat has a marina berth, or of impending battery damage.
Some form of GPS data is also standard across every unit. Some will allow you to set a so-called geo-fence, where you can program in the GPS coordinates of a virtual box around the boat, such that you receive an alarm if the boat strays outside it.
Others will simply warn you if your boat deviates from set coordinates by more than a predetermined amount – just like an anchor drag alarm.
After that, there’s a host of additional sensors and capabilities that can be added; everything from battery temperature and bilge pump activity to impact and motion detectors.
If you have security concerns, you should choose a unit that allows you to attach reed switches to doors and hatches, motion detectors and passive infrared sensors to spot intruders. Some systems allow you to couple this with an onboard siren, guaranteeing a nasty fright for the interloper as well as a timely warning for you.
Bilge alarms are the other staple of this sort of system, covering the risk of the boat quietly sinking at the mooring or berth. A widely quoted study from BoatUS found back in 2014 that nearly 70% of sinkings occurred in this way rather than at sea.
If you have an automatic bilge pump fitted, it’s easy to wire in a monitor so that your system can report run time and alert you of suspected pump blockages or unexpected water ingress. Otherwise, the sensor is simply a circuit that is completed by the presence of water.
Tip of the iceberg
Such alarms were the original driving force behind the development of remote boat monitoring. But the idea quickly developed in new directions. As mobile bandwidth has improved and become cheaper, it has become possible to send video over the network without breaking the bank.
Now you can tell the black box to send you a 30-second clip from the boat’s security cameras when an intruder alarm is triggered. You can actually watch the ne’er-do-well padding around below.
‘The second pillar of the market is vision,’ says CEO and founder Romain Devismes. ‘It allows users to live stream at any time to see what’s happening on their boat, and to receive a 30-second video if the camera detects an intrusion.’
Canadian brand BRNKL (pronounced ‘barnacle’) is developing something similar, but can already send still photographs. It supplies a set-up including an infrared camera with 800×600 resolution as part of a package costing £999.95.
You can buy additional cameras for £225 to cover different parts of the boat, and the annual subscription is a fairly steep £175.
Suddenly, the idea that you could request information from your boat at will was born. There are other very practical uses for this.
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If your remote boat monitoring system supports relay circuits, you can set it to switch things on board on or off to prepare for your arrival – with a bit of specialist planning you could connect a relay to the fridge circuit, the aircon (alright, perhaps not in the UK) or the heating.
You could switch lights on and off – either to discourage snoopers or because you’re arriving at night. Or you can use it to fire up your instruments to check the depth and wind speed; get a read-out from the tank senders for water and diesel levels.
This is a capability offered by Yacht Sentinel. ‘When the user clicks on “update” from the user app, it turns on the NMEA network for five minutes and then automatically turns it off,’ says Devismes. ‘Information in relation to GPS, speed, wind, water depth, fluid levels and battery status can therefore be updated any time.’
Then it gets really interesting. With two-way communication established, your boat can not only warn you of problems, but you or an engineer can also interrogate the boat systems to find out more.
Most cruising sailing boats will possess a limited degree of smart technology, but we are standing on the cusp of the Internet of Things. Everything from load sensors and sail transponders to seacocks and ovens could in principle report into the system electronically.
However, Sentinel Marine CEO Marko Pihlar says that lies a long way off.
‘Future systems will become less “talkative” and more problem-solving oriented,’ he says. ‘Interacting with the boat via remote control, for example, has been a reality for some time now, but only on a basic level – HVAC, fridge, lights, etc. More elaborate scenarios are still in the distant future because of the risks involved.’
Instead, the benefit is more for owners and charter outfits to track boats, and to diagnose and fix problems with the boat’s systems. At this point, we start to move away from a scenario where your boat sends regular updates to your phone, tablet or laptop.
A lot more data is being generated and it has real value to equipment manufacturers, boatbuilders and charter managers. Your boat is sending data regularly to the cloud and it isn’t just you who can see it.
There’s an app for the owner, and another one for the boatbuilder or manager. ‘There are a lot of free services for the user, and on the other side the shipyard gets data about how the boat is being used,’ explains Devismes. ‘The data is on home aggregate – it’s not personalised.’
Of course, if the owner isn’t happy with this transfer of data, they can opt out, but this can prevent the app from delivering its services too. ‘It creates
a lot of value for the boat owner,’ he continues. ‘A much better insight into what’s going on – a lot of data to improve customer queries.’
Built-in data tracking
For boatbuilders, it’s all about understanding how their boats are used – not in individual cases, but on the big issues. If it’s a sailing boat, for instance, how often is the engine running while the boat’s in use? In what wind strengths are boats most often used?
Charter operators meanwhile will want to keep an eye on their fleets and ensure you don’t take the boat into forbidden waters. While these more complex systems are still available for owners to buy and retrofit, the real aim is to sell them to a boatbuilder or operator.
Instead of chasing each customer, you work through a yard that churns out hundreds if not thousands of yachts each year. This is the case with Sentinel Marine, which has partnered with Hanse Yachts.
The world’s number two series yacht builder fits its Hanse, Dehler, Moody and motorboat brands with the wiring backbone and hardware necessary to support Sentinel’s units.
Marketed as My Safety Cloud, it costs the boat owner very little to ‘switch on’ this option when they order the boat. It offers a host of valuable benefits, including electronic logging that allows you to share your track with friends, equipment manuals and instructions accessible via the app, warnings about upcoming servicing dates and even a feature for ordering spare parts.
As the model numbers of each piece of kit aboard are already registered on the app, you always get the correct part. ‘Boat owners require simpler ownership,’ says Pihlar. ‘Maintenance is a great example of friction, where technology can help.’
Beneteau has also just announced a partnership with Sentinel Marine under the moniker ‘Seanapps’. It looks as if it will broadly mirror the capabilities of the Hanse system, although the world’s top boatbuilder is remaining tight-lipped about the data it plans to harvest and the purposes it will be put to.
By 2025 all 9,000 boats built every year by Groupe Beneteau will be equipped with Sentinel’s BM-40 box.
What lies ahead?
Signal K is a communications protocol designed specifically by a global group of enthusiasts to bring the Internet of Things on board.
It is programmed by sailors for the marine ecosystem. ‘Interfacing with Signal K would allow us to grab more data from the boat, not only NMEA data,’ says Devismes of Yacht Sentinel.
‘Signal K would extend our reach to anything installed on a boat: camera, non-NMEA sensors, switches, etc. The downside is that Signal K uses quite a lot of data as it is.’
Teppo Kurki is one of the developers of Signal K, and he uses it in his boat to alert him to battery problems. Last summer his alternator started playing up – something he identified because the system voltage kept spiking oddly.
He was able to look back through the historical data to isolate the issue. ‘That saved my battery,’ he says. ‘I’m not aware of any remote boat monitoring systems that are capable of providing access to full historical data. I have the last five years.’
Signal K is not a plug-and-play option. You have to install a server on board – basically a little Raspberry Pi set-up with the Opensource server software. Then it’s easy to install apps that will fire off an alert if, say, the temperature drops below freezing or the voltage crashes. ‘It’s no harder than, say, installing Windows,’ says Kurki.
It gives two-way communication, allowing you to remotely switch things, and is particularly suited to smart home products designed for the Internet
Signal K has not been adopted by any big manufacturers and Kurki doubts that it will. ‘There’s not a big incentive for them,’ he says. ‘The thing about Signal K is the openness, and that is not really an advantage to the bigger players.’ He reckons it will remain the preserve of dedicated tinkerers. ‘You can apply it in remote monitoring, but that’s just one application. It can do a lot more things as well. If you want an easy remote monitoring system, buy something off the shelf.’
One of the other challenges to getting your boat online is the speed at which mobile communications develop and make older systems obsolete. Two emerging technologies with much greater range hold out some promise here.
Germany’s BoatOfficer, developed by Hendrik Basler, is a remote boat monitoring solution built to function using a new low-power, low-bandwidth wireless protocol called LoRaWAN.
Part of a global ecosystem known as TheThingsNetwork, it operates on a free frequency band (858MHz in Europe) with a range that can exceed 50km on a line-of-sight basis.
Though its 11kps top speed is adequate for data-light remote boat monitoring, LoRaWAN is no good for bandwidth-hungry functions such as video. And coverage can be patchy because it relies on crowdsourced infrastructure.
In order for your BoatOfficer to access the internet and report to you, it needs to connect via a €90 gateway – a little white box that LoRaWAN cheerleaders can attach to their home routers.
Though nearly 1,000 people in the UK have done just that, there are some big gaps. Between Bournemouth and Teignmouth, for instance, there are no units. On the other hand, Southampton is a hotspot, providing reception up to 10 miles south-east of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight.
Cellular vs satellite
‘Since we’re using TheThingsNetwork free of charge, we offer our basic services without monthly fees – another USP in this market,’ says Basler, who sees the long range and very low power consumption as the other key benefits of the system.
‘We are able to provide monitoring over a few months without need of battery connection. It is ideal in our hemisphere to monitor the boat during winter storage or remote areas.’
The basic BoatOfficer blue box (€429) relays GPS coordinates, temperature and alerts about an impact, while there are optional battery and water sensors.
More sensors are coming, but this is among the most limited ranges at the moment.
New Zealand’s BoatSecure also uses LoRaWAN, but the Briton who developed the brand believes that a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellites have a key role to play.
John McDermott says they can provide a cheap and reliable connection between boats and their owners in far-flung corners of the world, or across borders. ‘The problem with cellular is that it is complex and expensive to develop and manufacture,’ McDermott explains. ‘In Europe you immediately get into issues around roaming with a SIM card.’
For cheap global coverage, McDermott points instead to Swarm’s constellation of 120 mini SpaceBEE satellites, where global coverage can be had for a $5/m subscription. ‘It is relatively low cost,’ he says. ‘It would mean that one could sell the product anywhere in the world and it would work out of the box. So, wherever your boat is, it can be monitored and tracked.’
The base unit would be more expensive to build for satellite comms, and at the moment this is also a very low-bandwidth option. That $5 subscription allows you to send a 192-byte packet of data up to 750 times in a month – enough to transmit a very compact update detailing the GPS position, battery voltage, temperature and the status of a number of sensors. The current constellation of SpaceBEEs also leaves a few gaps, so you may have a few minutes every hour when communication is not possible.
If you want instant notification that the boat is moving or shore power has been lost, then Swarm is not (yet) the service for you. However, this is due to be rectified in 2022, so expect space to start providing a viable monitoring solution soon.
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