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Wired network--an essential onboard Wi-Fi partner

With Wi-Fi now nearly as pervasive as the air we breathe, we asked veteran marine electronics manufacturer Phil Whitehurst for his take on the current and future interplay between marine electronics and Wi-Fi. Whitehurst is CEO of UK-based Actisense, which makes a wide variety of NMEA 2000, 0183 and other devices. One of them is the Wi-Fi gateway W2K-1, which he says is helping to expand the reach and usefulness of the wireless technology aboard vessels. Below are excerpts from his original article in MEJ.

By Phil Whitehurst

Wi-Fi is becoming more prominent throughout marine electronics. Its uses range from allowing the leisure boat user to access internet-based entertainment, through to enabling commercial ship operators to remotely monitor navigational data from the ship. 

The technology was invented and released to consumers in 1997 and allowed two megabits per second of data to be transferred wirelessly between devices. Over its 22-year history, Wi-Fi has developed in many ways and now, in the age of ‘Wi-Fi 6’, it can theoretically transfer data up to 9.6 gigabits per second, 4800 times quicker than the original standard.

As Wi-Fi has developed, so has its use across the marine electronics industry, especially with mobile electronic devices. The convenience of a wireless connection is one of the main reasons why it is being more commonly used.

Wired core network

Running wires behind a bulkhead to create a network can cause challenges. A lack of space and limited areas to run wires through are just some of the reasons why creating a fully wired network can be difficult. While a network should always retain a wired core to guarantee data integrity between devices critical to vessel safety, extending that network wirelessly to complement and assist the user can help reduce installation time, effort and cost.

While the international standards NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 have greatly helped to foster an inclusive data network where the sharing of data freely throughout a vessel is possible, Wi-Fi is the logical extension to that network. Connecting a Wi-Fi-enabled marine electronic device to mobile (phone or tablet) devices allows navigational data (such as position, speed, course, wind speed, depth, engine data and AIS messages) to be viewed wirelessly anywhere on a vessel, greatly increasing the flexibility of where that data can be viewed from. Wi-Fi gateways, such as Actisense’s W2K-1, can transfer data messages from a data network (NMEA 2000 in the W2K-1’s case) to any Wi-Fi-enabled device and the applications running on it.

As the range of Wi-Fi is limited, ship-to-shore connectivity is difficult without using other technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) in conjunction with a ship-to-shore connection, either over 3/4/5G data link when close to shore, or over a satellite link when ocean-going. IoT allows devices with internet connections to ‘talk’ to each other, enabling connected devices to gather information from one another and store it for sharing on a cloud data server. This means that a variety of vessel data can be shared, stored and then later analyzed away from the ship on a device connected to the cloud data server.

Wi-Fi not fully reliable

While focusing on the benefits of Wi-Fi, it is important to not forget the very important reasons to keep and maintain a hard-wired core network on a vessel. A Wi-Fi connection is not 100% reliable as it operates using radio and microwave signals and requires all devices to share the same bandwidth. This can result in devices experiencing interference from time to time, especially in busy marinas, reducing the responsiveness to commands significantly. A hard-wired connection, such as NMEA 2000, in contrast has a much more repeatable responsiveness and is far more reliable. Therefore, a wired core to the vessel’s data network is essential for high reliability, allowing Wi-Fi to be used where it excels most: to extend the network to very helpful, but not safety-critical devices.

The Actisense W2K-1 was designed to create an intelligent link between a hard-wired network and a wireless network, as both are important for a fully functional and user-friendly vessel. The W2K-1 allows you to combine the advantages of the highly reliable NMEA 2000 backbone with the convenience of full data logging and the ability to share data wirelessly with Wi-Fi-connected devices.

All Wi-Fi gateways create a Wireless Access Point (WAP) that mobile devices connect to in order to receive data (and optionally configure the gateway). Most Wi-Fi gateways offer the option to connect to an existing Wi-Fi network (and more importantly any wired network it may be part of), however many gateways offer this at the expense of disabling their own WAP. Joining the gateway to an existing network has the benefit of making the gateway’s data available to any device on that network. The Actisense W2K-1 does not force the user to choose between having access to its WAP and joining an existing network as it has been designed to do both at the same time, guaranteeing that it can always be accessed directly through its WAP while sharing data on an existing network.

Working with apps

As Wi-Fi becomes a common part of marine networking, demand for application connectivity will continue to grow and the list of supported devices and applications will expand. There is already an impressive number of navigation applications that support Wi-Fi connectivity and the list of W2K-1 compatible applications is above 20 and rising each week as more apps are tested and added. When using wireless connections as an add-on to a hard-wired network, the popularity of applications and benefits offered by them will continue to open up new ways of navigating a vessel. 

The W2K-1’s logging capabilities guarantee that even if the Wi-Fi signal is lost and the application fails to receive the data, the NMEA 2000 data will still be logged to the internal industrial spec SD card. Knowing that the logged data can be retrieved whenever required can be a real comfort, especially in the rare but real situation of proving the facts of a collision between two vessels. 

What’s ahead?

As the marine industry’s connectivity moves forward, the next big step change will be the introduction of the highly anticipated NMEA OneNet international standard in 2020. OneNet comes with the promise to fill the gap currently held by the multitude of proprietary protocols and offer the marine industry a standard method of sharing NMEA 2000 PGNs (soon to be renamed NMEA PGNs) over Ethernet. Once these NMEA PGNs are running around the wired Ethernet core network, sharing them over Wi-Fi will be the next logical step to create a powerful data network truly capable of anything its user requires of it.

Faster and more populous OneNet networks can expand and complement the benefits of NMEA 2000 networks by adding data security and typically speeds up to 4000 times faster than NMEA 2000. OneNet can seamlessly join multiple NMEA 2000 networks together to overcome all the physical limitations of NMEA 2000 that have prevented adoption on large commercial vessels. 

Imagine if you will, a small, dedicated NMEA 2000 network on the bridge and another in the engine room, joined together by OneNet to create a powerful data network that can also embrace high bandwidth technologies such as video cameras, radar and sonar. The future is indeed bright.

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Clearwater, FL, July 6, 2020 – Lose The Cord is excited to be a new member of the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) network. The NMEA is committed to enhancing the technology and safety of marine electronics through installer training and interface standards. NMEA members promote professionalism within the marine electronics industry and provide access to the highest quality marine electronics products for your boating needs.

"Being a part of national organizations like NMEA is pivotal in connecting boaters to the needed gap in internet coverage. Partnerships like this help organizations like ours to offer premium internet solutions for those that directly need a stable and secure internet connection while aboard. Over the last few months, we have seen a dramatic increase in a need for solutions that could be mobile for those who have transitioned to working from home or online learning. We are excited for our new membership and look forward to offering our solution nationally.” said Paul Zoz, President & CEO of Lose The Cord.
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