Autopilots have come a mighty long way since they made their appearance in the 1930s. Today they are an essential part of vessels ranging from cruisers to high-seas fishing machines. They pack a variety of functions that can safely free you from the helm while eliminating rudder hard-over problems and adjusting for asymmetrical loads caused by propeller walk and unbalanced steering components.
All of this is well and good, but make sure the system is installed by techs who know what they’re doing or the result could be disastrous. In an article Marine Electronics Journal (MEJ) ran recently, dealers and tech support hotlines reported that autopilot problems account for a large percentage of calls they get. Comments ranged from "the rudder feedback unit was installed backwards” to "the compass was too close to the pilot” to "the boat makes hard-over turns for no apparent reason.” Be careful out there!
Below are eight autopilots that earn high marks. The lineup is part of an exercise we do at MEJ every year—we call it the Best & Brightest Boating Electronics. We ask manufacturers to tell us which model in 19 categories of marine electronics products they consider to be their best—not necessarily the most advanced or latest but the one than delivers the highest marks overall. That could be their most popular model or the one that has passed the test of time. For the past few weeks the topic has been wireless devices—click here for a look.
Furuno NavPilot 300
Furuno’s NavPilot 300 is ideal for center consoles with outboards or drive-by-wire systems on small- to mid-sized boats. It features a single-DIN, 4.1-inch color LCD display and a Gesture Controller. The Gesture Controller allows you to simply point and shoot in any direction, controlling your vessel’s steering from anywhere onboard within 10 meters of the helm. Simply push the button on the Gesture Controller, point to the desired heading, then release the button to let the autopilot redirect the boat. Imagine true point-and-click steering from anywhere on the boat.
The NavPilot 300 also includes Furuno’s unique Sabiki Mode that steers the outboards while you are drifting astern, letting you focus on fishing, jigging for bait, or keeping your position while waiting for a drawbridge to open.
Garmin GHP Reactor 40 with SmartPump v2
Garmin’s Reactor 40 hydraulic autopilot keeps you on course at cruising speeds, minimizes heading error, reduces power consumption and more, so you can be more comfortable while cruising. Solid-state nine-axis Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) sensors provide reliable vessel control in all sea and weather conditions and consistent heading accuracy within 2 degrees. With a complete package designed for powerboats and sailboats, Garmin brings an advanced marine technology to the boating public that was once only available for commercial boats. Experience the ultimate hydraulic autopilot performance when paired with the one-size-fits-most, high-reliability, brushless SmartPump v2 that eliminates the risk of rudder "hard over.” Its patented Shadow Drive technology automatically disengages the autopilot if you take the helm and re-engages when you hold a steady course.
The new SI-TEX SP-120C color autopilot features a compact, rugged housing and bright full-color LCD display that can be easily viewed from different angles on open or enclosed helm stations. This makes the SP-120C an ideal autopilot option for a wide variety of vessels up to 38 feet in length. This pilot’s new color display also provides navigators with a range of useful new graphic presentations, including a Rudder Angle Meter and Compass Steering Display. The SP-120C comes paired with SI-TEX’s powerful new nine-axis rate compass for precise course detection and steering control in changing sea conditions. Virtual Rudder Feedback eliminates the need for a separate rudder feedback unit and junction box, resulting in a simpler, easier to install and more affordable autopilot system.
The newest member of the award-winning Evolution autopilot line, the Raymarine EV150 Hydraulic Autopilot System is engineered to meet the needs of small-to-medium-sized hydraulically steered vessels with a steering ram capacity between 4.9 cu. inches (80cc) and 14.0 cu. inches (230cc). The system is for 12-volt DC electrical systems only. The EV150 system features all the same Evolution series features that demanding boaters have come to know and appreciate, including simple setup and fully automatic calibration. Like its siblings, the EV150 features Evolution TrackIQ algorithms for tighter track-keeping and faster track acquisition. Raymarine’s patented Hydro-Balance technology automatically compensates for deficiencies in the boat’s hydraulics and adjusts automatically for asymmetrical loads caused by propeller walk and unbalanced steering rams. Evolution autopilots integrate with any Raymarine Axiom MFD.
Rolled out in early 2019, the ComNav P4 Autopilot has been dubbed by mariners as a highly reliable and precise autopilot. Now available with built-in steering control for azimuth drives and fully compatible with +/- 10 volts or 4-20mA control signal requirements. The P4 has successfully been interfaced with azimuth drives such as Rolls Royce, Schottel, Voith-Schneider, Dan Foss, Aqua Master and others. These systems can also be used with standard steering systems and also utilize any thruster assist (bow & stern). Advantages include no external interface required, easy installation and no extra power line required. With a 5.7-inch VGA color screen, an industrial grade encoder switch and large course-change knob, the P4 also offers a work mode for commercial work and fishing vessels.
The Simrad AP48 autopilot combines the same intuitive interface of the compact AP44 with a larger rotary control dial, dedicated dodge keys, and other extended keypad controls. The AP48’s rotary dial provides precise steering control, while dodge keys enable instant heading changes in 1- or 10-degree increments. Designed for optimal control in all conditions, the AP48’s large buttons are ideal for use with wet or gloved hands. To ensure optimal visibility in all conditions, the AP48’s full-color LCD panel is optically bonded to its protective glass covering, eliminating condensation or fogging within the display. Transflective LCD technology makes use of reflected sunlight to brighten rather than obscure the screen, delivering superior day-time visibility and lower power consumption compared to traditional backlit displays.
TROLLMaster PRO 3 Plus
TROLLMaster PRO 3 Plus is a high-quality remote throttle and steering control for auxiliary outboards. Maintain optimum trolling speeds to maximize your catch—salmon, steelhead, trout, walleye, tuna and more. Whether pro or weekender, spend less time fishing and more time catching. Features include lightweight ergonomic remote, water-resistant wireless controller with LCD display, full wireless remote steering control, control boat speed in 1/10-mph increments, momentary full-throttle burst, easy installation, engine-specific hardware fits neatly under the cowling, FCC and IC approved.
B&G Triton 2
The B&G Triton 2 is a smart, multi-purpose instrument featuring a full-color display and modern glass helm styling. The display, paired with a Triton2 Pilot Controller keypad, is a fully functional control head for compatible B&G autopilot systems. Delivering clear digital instruments and intuitive on-screen menus, the Triton 2 is designed for use in all conditions. Views of wind data, speed, depth, engine data, autopilot status and more are available at a glance. The LCD panel is optically bonded to its protective glass covering, eliminating the possibility of condensation or fogging within the display. Integrating brilliantly with B&G multifunction displays and glass helm systems, the Triton 2 can also function as a standalone instrument display and autopilot controller aboard smaller vessels.