If there was one thing noticeable about the Monaco Yacht Show, it was the incredible range of integrated-yacht companies now in operation. There’s no two ways about it, boats are getting smarter. But how can we best ensure they’re getting better at protecting the boat and its occupants? What should we look for in a system to provide the best experience for owner and crew? Here’s an overview of what an Alarm Monitoring Control System (AMCS) is and how to identify what features to look for with your boat.
Step 1: Get the data
The range of data which can now be monitored aboard a yacht is staggering – using off-the-shelf parts, you can now monitor everything from tank levels, battery voltages, hatch open-or-closed and bilge levels through to backstay tension and spa pool temperature. Use marine-grade sensors and keep in touch with your class surveyor if you’re under class. Expect to pay through the nose for wheelmarked equipment. But don’t scrimp, as with all systems – you only get out as good as you put in!
Cameras are another excellent data source for monitoring the yacht, and should definitely be included when thinking of an integrated AMCS. Flir in particular are releasing some very interesting thermal cameras which allow you to monitor the temperature of equipment within the engine room.
Step 2: Move the data
Once the data has been made, it needs to be reliably moved to the brains of the operation. Many problems we face are not with hardware, but cabling and so the type of data transmission selected can have a major impact on reliability and usefulness of the system.
Dry Contacts are the most simple data collection and distribution system. It’s essentially a switch connected to a 2-core piece of cable. Let’s say you’ve got one for the watertight engine-room door: if it’s closed, the door is closed; if it’s open, you’re sinking.
A (slight) step up: NMEA0183 has been the standard data choice for basic data since it was released in 1983. It is super simple, slow and reliable. A piece of wet string would almost work as a transmission wire, but what makes it reliable also makes it now practically useless. It’s a point-to-point system which means too much cabling around modern interconnected boat and the slow speed is not up to handling 90% of what we now want to do. It’s still very commonly used for GPS, heading, wind speed and direction, depth and some radar information on larger boats.
NMEA2000 is a form of CANBUS – a technology which is also a generation old and is used in vehicles of all types – cars, trucks, planes and even elevators. Within electronics, there’s safety in numbers. Choosing a technology which has been used millions of times before is the smart choice if you want reliability. In conjunction with a reliable data protocol, its marine-specific connectors give NMEA2000 the edge over other data protocols. It’s not fast enough for video and other data-intensive information, but it is fast enough for most control and data collection around the boat, such as digital switching, AIS information and engine information.
Ethernet is the other data protocol which is used by millions of people around the world every second. It is the only system fast enough to handle video, radar and depth sounder information so is used practically all boats in some form now. It’s fast, but it’s sometimes affected by interference and it’s difficult to troubleshoot when something goes wrong. It’s the anti-NMEA0183. The real issue is the connectors – the standard square RJ45 connector is not a marine connector, and although you can get quite good marine versions, they’re still only rarely used aboard yachts, which really does limit the areas RJ45 connections should be used.
Wifi & Bluetooth. Generally stay away from Wifi and bluetooth for mission-critical systems; their susceptibility to interference can be frustrating to say the least, and can be dangerous to say a bit more.
One area which can sometimes be overlooked when dealing with the latest technology is redundancy. If we have selected a nice reliable data network on board, which has been used on heaps of other equipment, then surely that’s reliable enough right? For non-critical equipment, this is indeed the case – if the connection to the stereo drops out then it’s bad but it’s not death (well unless you’re the ETO on board I guess). If you’re relying on a NMEA2000 connection as the sole method to start bilge pumps however, go back to the drawing board. NMEA2000 is fine for monitoring high bilge levels but shouldn’t be used as the sole control for these systems. And of course you will need to monitor the health of the sensor on the NMEA2000 network!
Step 3: Process the data
Once the data is in a central point, it needs to be sorted out – which data is dangerous? What is normal? What data is missing and who needs to know about it? This is the most yacht-specific part of the process – programming what door is which, what light goes where and what colour lights up the party pole in the master cabin. Often this programming will need modification once every year or two so it’s important that there is a plan in place for who will be doing this (ETO vs Shore-based contract) and there’s continuity in the process. And plenty of documentation. You always need more documentation.
Step 4: Use the data
This stage is often the hardest – the user interface. In its simplest form, it’s a flashing light; in its most complex, it’s several touch screens around the boat and management office. The hardest part however is making it usable for the boss when they’re the one in charge – taking complex information and presenting it in a simple and attractive enough way to suit the glamourous yacht in which it is installed.
The non-issue attitude
Intellian recently announced what on the surface was a pretty low key upgrade, but in reality marked an important turning point in how we think about troubleshooting onboard electronics. Before the update, if the dish failed, it could tell you which part was broken, for instance one of the motors. Handy right? Well, after the update, the dome now tells you which parts are about to fail, and how they are failing – so the issue can be fixed before it really becomes an issue. This small change hides a quantum shift in the way we should be looking at monitoring our yachts. It shouldn’t be just the satellite dome which is telling us when it’s about to fail, it should be the entire boat – the batteries shouldn’t just alarm when they’re at low voltage – they should notify you when the voltage is decreasing faster than it should for the given load current. The fridge shouldn’t just alarm when it gets too warm, it should inform you if the compressor hasn’t drawn over a certain amount of power today. These things can now be set up on most alarm monitoring systems, but the big cost is time to set them up.
Step 5: Control Things
Recently we have been involved with a boat which is concerned about piracy and wants to be able to turn the boat into a living hell should it be boarded by someone with nefarious purposes. Noise bombs, stabilisers working in reverse, air conditioning turned to maximum heat, smoke released and the stereo blasting Britney Spears Greatest Hits. The reason I mention this is because we now have the ability to do all of those things with the Oceanic Systems Poseidon AMCS system from a safe room. If you can dream it (nightmare it), we can make it happen. It’s also interesting to note that in doing so we used almost all of the data protocol systems mentioned above in the process, NMEA2000, ethernet and dry contacts. We are now well beyond only having dry contacts, or a power output to choose from.
Poseidon offers the advantage of a single control unit that can support multiple displays both local at the helm and in other locations in the yacht such as crews quarters or engine room so that all the yachts systems monitoring and control is available instantly wherever and whenever its needed. The system also allows the use of smart tablets or smart phones for remote monitoring and control and also remote diagnostics for continued support. The displays are all hi resolution, sunlight readable with capacitive touchscreen sensing and allow multiple pages of data to be created and shown.
From Multifunction Display to PLC
The spectrum of options for alarm controllers and displays is ridiculously wide – from as simple as setting up a voltage alarm and a buzzer on an MFD to installing a ground-up custom PLC with individually designed load cells to monitor rig stress.
One of the issues with PLCs is that there’s lots of different brands to contend with – Mitsubishi, Siemens, Allen Bradley, Omron, ABB. PLCs are used extensively in manufacturing, meaning they pass the “extensively used” test, but due to the wide range available, finding a marine electronics technician where you are who understands your particular brand of PLC might be a bit hit-and-miss.
Another problem is that normally the code is password-protected – if you are implementing a PLC-based AMCS system on your boat make sure that you specify you want the password during negotiations. This means you will have more options should you need help in a hurry later on, and they have less leverage when it comes time for changes to be made to the code.
If there has been a trend in the past few years it’s away from full custom alarm systems. Too many boats have been stuck with ancient technology aboard and the inability to upgrade due to a (normally Italian) company going under.
Systems which are used by many users are generally those which will be easier to program, have better support networks and have ironed out all the bugs which the small players are affected by.
All of the options I have mentioned are suitable for different sized boats – an MFD with a C-Zone module for instance might be the perfect AMCS for a 20ft day cruiser. But the majority of boats we deal with are in the 30-80m range, and we have found Oceanic Systems’ Poseidon offering to be an extremely versatile and reliable option for most boats in this range. It ticks all the boxes I have previously mentioned – support for all of the data types, plenty of boats are using it, while being simple enough to have the basics configured by an ETO or Captain.
So what’s going to be best for my boat?
The first thing to do is to find out what your goals are – what do you want to monitor, what do you want to control, what class requirements are. How do you want to present and interact with the information? Then start with the simplest systems and see if they’ll do the job, and if they don’t, then move to the next most complex system till you find one which will do what you want it to do.
As you move up the complexity scale, you will find the costs increase dramatically, and the number of units in the market decrease dramatically. Support costs and reliability issues may also rise with the complexity.
Try to go with the system which has been used many times before. It’ll save you headaches in the future.
As with many things in life, what you put into an AMCS is what you get out. If the sensors are good, the data system is well thought out, thought is spent on how to process the information and the customer is happy to interact with the display, then the system will be a success. But there is a lot of time involved to get all of those steps correct – and a lot of time means a lot of money. If you are prepared to spend on an AMCS however, it will undoubtedly pay itself off many times over in saved failures and happy charterers.
Horizon Marine Electronics is Mallorcas biggest marine electronics specialists, with dedicated technicians in all areas of superyacht technology, including an expert in digital switching and AMCS.