Discussion- Multi-purpose Onboard Computers

Discussion in 'OnBoard Electronics & Controls' started by TerryKing, Sep 24, 2007.

  1. TerryKing
    Joined: Feb 2007
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    Location: Topsham, Vermont

    TerryKing On The Water SOON

    NOTE: This thread is intended as a discussion point for many of us who are interested in using computers onboard small to medium sized boats. This is aimed at those who want to discuss Do-It-Yourself (DIY) solutions, or discuss integrating off-the-shelf components into a working system aboard their boat. There are beginning to be good available turnkey solutions from major manufacturers such as RayMarine, and they are a good solution, though expensive, for those who don't want to dig into the guts of these issues.

    So let's first try to define what we're talking about, and what capabilities and components might make up a good onboard system for the types of boats we are involved with.

    BoatDesign.net has a WIKI section where many people can contribute and easily edit and add content. That's where the ideas and information that come out of this discussion should end up. I will try to keep that up to date with what we learn here. Please take a look at the WIKI at:
    for more background.

    OK: Here's my perspective on this right now. I hope all of you who are interested in this stuff will add your ideas and perspectives and we'll end up with something better! This is just a list of FUNCTIONS; the HOW to do this stuff is a follow-on subject... and the one I personally find most interesting.

    ---------------( Overview )---------------------------

    The powerful desktop and server computer systems we are used to in office and home environments are the basis for powerful Multi-Purpose Onboard systems. It is a big advantage in an onboard computer to be able to do the things we're used to onshore: running more than one software application at the same time, communicating easily with other computers, interfacing to a wide variety of peripheral devices and storing large amounts of data, including maps and graphics. The biggest challenge in using computers of this type is the somewhat hostile marine environment. Powering and protecting these computers onboard will be discussed in following sections. Fortunately, many of the things that were difficult one-off solutions a few years ago are more easily solved today.

    Onboard Computer Applications

    Lets take a look at the kinds of things we might use an onboard computer for:

    Navigation and Underway Monitoring / Control Systems

    • Map-based Navigation/Plotter software and systems such as OziExplorer, Winchart Nexus, Fugawi, Transas etc.
    • GPS / Compass interface: Real-time Position, up/download waypoints, maps, tracks
    • Chart/Recorders
    • Autopilot (Automatic steering)
    • Depth Sensors/Recorders
    • Radar/AIS/Collision Avoidance/Docking Video Cameras

    Onboard Systems Monitoring and Control

    This would include the Monitoring (and Control where applicable) of shipboard systems. This is much like a modern automobile where many systems are monitored and alarms are sounded/flashed if something goes wrong. It is an extension of the "Dashboard" instruments we are familiar with, but there is the possibility of integrating them so they are all being "watched" while we pay attention to the helm. They also can be logged, so that trends and history can be shown. Systems that might be monitored include:

    • Propulsion and steering systems
    • Sail Rigging Monitoring and Control
    • Onboard power systems
    • Consumeables / Tank Levels
    • Heating/cooling
    • Lighting
    • Water/sanitation systems
    • Environmental and weather instruments
    • Safety/Security Monitoring: Intrusion, Bilge Flooding, Heat/Fire, Dangerous Gases, Anchor Drag

    Leisure Time and At-Anchor Activities

    • Voyage planning, route and waypoint creation, editing.
    • MultiMedia: Audio/Music(MP3), DVD/Movie playback
    • Writing, Photo/Video viewing and editing, Log-Keeping
    • Communications thru Email and WWW, HF Radio, WeatherFAX
    • Broadcast or Satellite TV Reception
    • Other typical personal-computer activities

    OK, please comment, add, discuss, raise problems, etc.

    (I will try to track down some of you who have discussed this kind of thing before.. Please point anyone else you know may be interested here too.)
  2. Tim B
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    Tim B Senior Member

    There is a sub-area of monitoring and control, particularly on yachts, which is measuring rigging loads. How useful would it be (particularly in racing yachts) to know what the instantaneous shroud loadings were? Of course, you need to know what the failure loads are...

    Tim B.
  3. TerryKing
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    TerryKing On The Water SOON

  4. Tim B
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    Location: Southern England

    Tim B Senior Member

    Very drole, and you assume we're not doing that at work!! Although combining the results of load-cells on the shrouds and tilt-sensors would allow confirmation of the GZ curve, so there is considerable scope for research.

    Tim B.
  5. Hank Rosendal
    Joined: Oct 2006
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    Location: West Australia

    Hank Rosendal not old enough for some things, too old for others

    Hi Terry and others

    Over the last few months there was a similar thread and but this one is more directed at exploring the possibilities.

    Your three headings Navigation, Monitoring, and Leisure are quite to the point. Many a sailor would have items in each of these sections deemed essential or on the wish-list. Can I add some new items? Or even add a new heading like : Communications?
    • Distance, Speed and Course (or is this part of the navigation software?)
    Monitor of systems:
    • Battery management
    • Engine management
    • Tank levels (as you mentioned) in detail: fuel, water and sullage
    * TV reception (both analogue and digital)
    * Internet (as you mentioned already)
    * Email (as you mentioned already), or via HFSSB
    * Radio ie SDR - Software Designed Radio
    * Weather fax

    I can’t help myself thinking in a matrix form, a list of possibilities what one can do on a small/medium sized boat. And then applying the IT requirements for each of these wishes/needs and add them up: resulting in the system we need. The conclusion/solution is presented to us, it is that easy!

    In the next week I will put something in a spreadsheet and post it.

    As you (Terry) indicated on Wikipedia, there are many variables to include, apart from what software we use or systems we monitor. One of the main issues (euphemism for ‘problems’) is the requirement to have the computer running for 24 hrs a day, or to run for a substantial part of the day. This requires in turn a sufficient amount of supply of power.
    We need to have suitable solutions for this, both in terms of cost, space and weight. For smaller boats the last two variables in particular need attention.

    Although it may too early to offer solutions, as the list of opportunities have not been exhausted or far from completed, just a few things to look at if one is interested:

    Just some motherboards with small of no fans, just follow the links to more info:

    An example of fanless computer (is this the same as “Stealth” as listed in Wikipedia?):

    Some info on SDR - Software Designed Radio

  6. TerryKing
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    TerryKing On The Water SOON

    The matrix

    Hank, thanks for the thoughts. If many of us can put those together we can end up with some workable stuff. I think this will be an enjoyable quest. But maybe only those of us who were born around 1940 or so and first built equipment with vacuum tubes appreciate the amazing possibilities more than the Newbie-Nerds :D

    Here's a pointer to info on the fanless system board I got recently:
    This is a small (6.7 inches or 17cm square) complete PC system board with a 1.2 Ghz processor running at 1.0 volts and a board total of 12 to 14 watts.

    Now, I don't think there's any one 'right' solution to these issues, but I'm at the point where I want to prototype something and see what the problems are. I'll post more tomorrow about what I have in mind, and I hope others will share their different ideas.. Portager has experience with a more Industrial PC system called PC-104 (See the Wiki for his good explanation).

    Hank, I think we can get the 'wish' categories to cover all the things you mentioned. TV Reception should be added; many boaters want it, at least in port.

    Others: Speed, Course etc. would usually be in NAV software...

    More details on communications options including Cruising solutions like HF radio (SSB-PACTOR etc) and Satellite should end up in the bucket somewhere. Many of the latest HF radios are software-controllable and actually use Digital Signal Processing at their intermediate frequencies. As an old Ham and Broadcast Engineer I wish I had more time to build radios :cool:

    So, let's all keep tuning it up...
  7. Ike
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    Ike Senior Member

    If you have read any of Nigel Calder's stuff on distributed power systems on boats you've probably realized that it all has to be controlled by an onboard computer system. While at the moment the discussion is mostly larger yachts, this, like everything else, is going to trickle down into smaller and smaller boats. Already most inboard engines have what are called ECM's (electronic control modules) which are just computers which can be plugged into and feed data to a computer. Just about everything electronic today can do the same. But in addition to just reading data they can be used as a control device.

    Distributed power systems are probably the wave of the future for controlling all of your onboard power needs, so look for more to come.
  8. Tim B
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    Tim B Senior Member

    A friend of mine is developing power monitoring and control units for smaller yachts, which can communicate with an on-board system. "Re-route primary power Mr. Spock!"

    I think (for this thread) we should consider the trade-off between capability, cost and power requirements. The great advantage in using ATX-standard watercooled hardware is that adding features is easy. There are plenty of PCI sockets, and SATA is in-built into most motherboards, as is video and sound. That means that the basic system (with control architecture via parallel/serial/ethernet) is already supplied as a single-board computer. A typical desktop CPU (say 2.6GHz P4) is actually an extremely capable chip, which can be used to do real-time data analysis. Since the gaming market has been driving the price of components down, this becomes a very affordable option, given the capability of the system.

    Now I'm sure some smart-arse is going to say that you can do all that with an SBC or PC/104 system, and they're probably right. The input power is less, but so is the capability of the CPU.

    For a home-developed system, it's much easier to develop systems on the platform that you'll be using.

    Tim B.
  9. TerryKing
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    TerryKing On The Water SOON


    Ike, I agree this is close to being practical for smaller craft. In fact, I think that running a 12 volt power distribution bus with smart switches makes sense for a 10 meter or so boat.

    I'll do some looking at smart switches. There are many recent power control chips that could be the basis for these switches, with programmable overcurrent protection, status reporting etc. I just don't see any off-the-shelf complete units suitable for Marine use yet. I used to design Automatic Test Equipment and so controlling power seems 'normal' ... TimB - that's a great connection! Can your friend tell us anything about his work? Maybe we can share some ideas...

    Calder's articles talk about a "3-Cable Boat". That's the Negative and Positive power bus cables plus a network cable.
    (I had trouble following this online. A hacked-together PDF of the second article is here: http://www.terryking.us/boatbuilding/BoatNetworkPBB2.pdf)

    I think this should become a part of this discussion, but maybe a distinct part.
  10. TerryKing
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    TerryKing On The Water SOON


    Tim, those trade offs are one of the main questions here, I think. I would also put availability and reliability in the equation.

    I totally agree that developing a system on the target platform is a good thing. With fully-capable X86 system boards available that require 12 watts, I think the time has come. Can a PC-104 system can come in that low? And the 500 Mhz Single Board systems are still 8 watts or so, and have significantly less capability.

    Here's what I want (approximate numbers):
    - 1 Ghz+ X86 CPU, 1 Gb+ RAM
    - 15 watts of less system board power consumption
    - Full modern PC complement of I/O:
    - Human interfaces
    - High speed Ethernet
    - 2+ Serial, Parallel ports
    - 6 or more USB ports
    - at least 1 or 2 PCI slots
    - Good video outputs supporting LCD, HD-TV, 1394 Video in/out
    - IDE and SATA disk drive interfaces
    - Runs popular OS: WIN-XP, Linux, WIN-CE, XPembedded
    - small size, mechanically rugged
    - no socketed large chips (personal prejudice)
    - Probably more!

    A decent system has to comfortably run both NAV software and the high-end monitoring and control stuff we have talked about.

    LOTS of tradeoffs to figure out...
  11. TerryKing
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    TerryKing On The Water SOON

    A REALLY small PC??

    Here's a look at where the small low-power stuff is going, with a fairly complete PC only 100 by 75 mm and 1 watt:

    Here's a review:
    (Photo below)

    With built-in Ethernet, these look interesting for a distributed system with multiple units on a larger boat.

    Having two or more units which each have the redundant capability to run the NAV and monitoring software sounds like the multi-engine requirement...

    Attached Files:

  12. StianM
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    StianM Senior Member

    There is no cheap way to do marine electronics.
    What you save in cost will likely get back at you in repair and mantinace.

    I would try to get my hands on some old PLC that someone dumped because two ports are broken or something and PLC nowdays can do the moust amazing things.

    For computer I would proartly just get a PC that is outdated for Windows Vista and computergames and install a Linux version with a smal footprince so I could runn as litle ram as posible since more ram require more power and I would prefere to runn two of them in paralell so if one failed the other one could take over all tasks.
    You would then be able to replace it with a new one from the local junkyard.

    High speed internet could be easely done using satelite witch is not that expensive if your doing downloading only. It would be posible to download by satelite and upload trough mobile phone. ruuning a local wireless network with other boats if you travel in groups would ease comunication and putting your bandwitch together would really give a high speed internet.

    The bad thing is that last time I checked (1999) a gyro satelite system for a ship was a litle fortune (about 100 000USD)

    I also see disadvantages of computer systems onboard ships and that is powerconsumption. however if you use electrisety to heating up you cabin it won't mather. The computer would generate heat so your heater could turn down a litle and the total powerconsumption would be about the same if you have all the stuff below deck where you live.
  13. yipster
    Joined: Oct 2002
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    Location: netherlands

    yipster designer

    still have to read what is written above but rewired spotlight and anchor (both 7 wires)
    now want to connect a bluetooth gps ($70) again to my old laptop with wireless digital tv etc
    have noorderzon inland and transas ( now tsunami ) and seatalk via nmea to autohelm pilot
    was overlaying radar on transas nav till all got nicked. now made but dont often use wireless alarm
    google earth and more is also handy onboard and i'm thinking of bleutooth ( 10 meter ) signals
  14. TerryKing
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    TerryKing On The Water SOON

    Overlaying Radar on NAV software display??

    Yipster, using Bluetooth or other wireless interfaces is interesting. I worry a little about spread-spectrum wireless interfering with low-signal receivers like HF Weatherfax, and AIS. Also, high-power transmit on HF interfering with low-power wireless. There is a lot of RF energy around a boat when transmitting at HF with 200 watts or so.

    RADAR: Can you (or anyone else) point to a good explanation of modern small-boat Radar? I know how Radar works, but I have no personal experience with it on a small boat.

    How can Radar display be overlaid in a PC on NAV software?

    I know AIS can be displayed on OziExplorer thru its software API.

    I'm still in search of that single unified display at the helm...

  15. marshmat
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    marshmat Senior Member

    There's been some interesting talk here about the various devices, features, gadgets, etc. that we might be interested in having on board.
    Probably the hardest part is getting all this gear to talk to all the other gear. The protocols we're used to on land don't always translate that well to moving vehicles. I'd invite thoughts on the following connections, to which I've already appended some of my comments;

    CANbus - Useful and robust protocol, reliable, but so many different variations of it (devices may speak the same basic "language", but different "dialects"- like a Texan talking to a Scot) - if I recall correctly, NMEA-2000 interfaces are CANbus based?

    USB (1.1, 2.0 and soon-to-be-announced 3.0) - High bandwidth, cheap, most consumer devices support it - but 1.1 and 2.0 rather limited in cable length, bandwith drops with interference, relatively complex to program for

    RS232 (old style serial) - Robust, cheap, easy to code for, but limited data bandwidth and cable length

    RS485 (industrial-grade serial) - Really robust, still pretty cheap and easy to code, reliable signal on long cables, but limited bandwidth - perhaps a good choice for sensor interfaces, etc. that only transmit strings/arrays of numbers?

    IEEE1394 (iLink/Firewire) - Blazing fast speeds but hard to implement and pretty expensive - good for entertainment systems (video etc)?

    802.11a/b/g/n (WiFi) - Good for wireless computer terminals but I don't think it's a total substitute for a wired connection; not that reliable and quite interference-prone

    Bluetooth - Short range wireless, commonly used for cellphones etc - probably too short range and interference-prone/unreliable for our boat purposes, but might be suitable for handheld interfaces (accessing your nav system from your palmpilot)?

    Ethernet - Cheap, fast, widely supported, but software side somewhat more complex than simpler peripheral busses (in boats, Furuno NavNet is Ethernet-based if I recall correctly)
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