Wireless sensors linked to smartphone apps are making it easier than ever to check up on your boat, wherever you are. Rupert Holmes reports
What is it?
Real time boat monitoring that allows remote checking of a vessel’s status and essential systems.
Who is it for?
Any owner who wants to know how their boat is faring while they’re either on or away from it.
Although there has long been plenty of talk about smart boats on which a multitude of data is captured and analysed, this is a long way from being mainstream. Nevertheless, there are a number of generally small and young companies that are actively working in this field.
At its most basic a system might offer basic remote monitoring of just five core functions: GPS position, bilge alarm, smoke (i.e. fire) alarm, battery voltage, and intruder alarm. Although very few yachts have even such a basic system – at a guess a fraction of one per cent – it’s a hugely appealing concept.
I’m writing this on my cruising yacht in the Aegean, a boat I keep deliberately very simple to minimise downtime for maintenance. However, when I’m at home, 1,500 miles away, it would be massively reassuring to know that I’d be notified of any problems, together with periodic ‘all OK’ messages that confirm the monitoring system remains operational.
These are all basic functions of the much-touted Internet of Things – objects with embedded computing devices that enable them to send data. The GoFree Vessel system from Navico’s GoFree division, for instance, monitors a wide range of parameters, including information such as engine hours, battery status, oil pressure, coolant temperature and fuel consumption, and more.
It can also be interfaced with up to five security sensors, battery voltage and NMEA2000 networks. Subscription costs vary from a free WiFi-only basic monitoring system to $25 per month for greater functionality. There are also satellite data options.
Other companies already operating in this field include London-based Yacht Sentinel, Croatia based Sentinel Marine, plus Oceanic Systems, Nautic Alert, Blue Guard Innovations and Malta-based IoT Solutions. Most offer packages aimed at both private owners and fleet operators.
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Sentinel Marine has also recently announced a partnership with Hanse Yachts in which the company’s telematics are integrated into each of their boats to deliver a ‘boat with an app’ experience, called the MyHanse Safety Cloud.
This includes boat monitoring, an eLogBook and eServiceBook, while further apps are at the planning stage. Sentinel Marine also supplies similar systems to Beneteau’s First series and has further partnerships with Garmin and Torqeedo.
Yacht Sentinel’s latest version is a plug-and-play system with wireless sensors and includes six key notification modes as standard:
- Position – an alert if the boat drifts beyond a defined radius (user adjustable from 40-200m).
- Safe return – contacts the boat if it has not returned to base within a set time.
- Battery – an alert when the voltage falls below a predefined level.
- Tilt – a warning when the angle of heel exceeds a set value.
- Shock – triggered if the boat hits something (or something hits the boat).
- Temperature – internal temperature rises or falls beyond user-defined limits.
In addition, optional sensors cover up to 40 different parameters, including excess bilge water level, forced entry, PIR intruder detection, loss of shorepower, external temperature, a loud 105db siren, plus item security if valuable ‘tagged’ items are removed from the boat.
Sensors are wireless, which helps reduce set up time to a minimum, while 3G/4G data is included for the first two years. After that subscriptions cost just £50 per year. There’s also an option to use satellite data if conventional mobile networks are not available. Pricing starts at £349 for a pared down version, through Bronze, Silver and Gold packages at £599, £1,139 and £1,379 respectively, including VAT.
AI and analytics
How far is it possible to take the concept of an intelligent boat? Belgian company Sailsense Analytics has developed a system that employs artificial intelligence and in-depth analytics to provide what it says is the most advanced boat monitoring system.
Real-time analysis of the data can warn skippers that they may be sailing into danger and can even automatically identify incidents such as grounding – a major boon to charter companies.
“Collecting data is easy – many people do that – but the difficult bit is to analyse it,” says head of business development Odile Corbon. “We collect data from different devices, but what’s interesting is the way it’s handled, through algorithmic calculations and artificial intelligence, to understand the behaviour of the devices, the behaviour of the boat and the behaviour of the people on board the boat.”
What sets the Sailsense system apart from others? Corbon says it’s the quality and quantity of data, plus integrated analysis and calculations to understand what the data can reveal. For instance, the system can detect a grounding through analysis of five or six parameters, including position, changes of speed, depth and the boat’s fore and aft trim – the bow dips on running aground.
“We made some mathematical studies, then followed this with testing on the water,” she adds.
“We can differentiate between a shock on the front of the boat, from behind the boat or from the side.” This analysis is clearly useful for both charter operators and insurers, but is also helpful for boat owners and charter clients – if a grounding has not been recorded during your charter, then any damage is clearly not your responsibility.
Different interfaces are optimised for charter base managers, boatbuilders, insurers and private boat owners. The onboard interface is via an app that can give warnings of a myriad of parameters, such as low battery voltage, or that the engine speed is too high for sustained running. On the navigational side, the artificial intelligence can give tips such as a new weather forecast indicating the wind may exceed a predefined limit.
Equally, if you’re sailing close to dusk, it can offer a night navigation checklist. These parameters can be defined in advance, recognising that a bareboat charter operator would have different priorities to a skippered charter yacht or a private owner.
Since yachts are becoming ever more complex, it’s increasingly difficult to keep track of when particular maintenance tasks need to be carried out. However, a complete maintenance schedule can be programmed into the Sailsense system.
“It’s all very well having manuals for the boat and equipment,” Corbon says, “but you don’t look at them every day and on a sophisticated boat it can be very complex to keep track of everything.” Many of the early adopters of these systems are charter companies who can keep track of their fleet and also offer better service to their customers.
Data is processed in real time, so users have an ongoing diagnosis of the boat and systems. It can warn, for instance, of the early stages of a problem such as a damaged impeller resulting in the engine running at a warmer than optimal level, but still below the temperature at which the alarm is triggered.
Hardware consists of a waterproof hub or pod with 4G connectivity that’s compatible with a wide range of protocols used by on board systems and engines including NMEA2000, NMEA0183, J1939, CANBus, MasterBus, VE.CAN and Pbus.
Even if the Sailsense system is beyond what many private owners would choose at the moment as an upgrade to an existing boat, it’s a clear indication of what’s likely become more mainstream in future. The Sailsense pod is priced at €412, while the hub costs €660.
Engine monitoring and reporting
There are clearly also parallels in this field with cars that report data to their manufacturers, particularly if it’s relevant for service or repair. Volvo Penta’s Easy Connect app interfaces with the boat’s instrument and engine data and is able to send diagnostic codes, as well as serial number and engine hours logged, to Volvo Penta dealers.
Raceboats and superyachts
At the highest end of racing and in the superyacht arena it’s becoming more common to have load cells on key rig and structural components, with data logging and analysis to prevent failure through overloading and to inform future design and structural engineering knowledge.
Cyclops Marine, for instance, recently launched an integrated load measurement, data logging and analytics system, with output to instrument systems, smartphones and the cloud.
First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World.