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Best marine autopilots for 2019
6/25/2019

Believe it or not, autopilots have been around for nearly 85 years. A salmon troller named Wood Freeman who was also a mining engineer and chemistry professor invented the device after suffering a serious injury aboard his boat that rendered him nearly unable to steer it back to port. He installed the first pilot on a commercial fishing boat in 1934 and patented it soon after.

According to the company that he later formed to produce the device, "Popular but unreliable techniques of the day included steady sails, sea anchors and fishing lead on a trailing line connected to the tiller. Wood continued commercial fishing while working to perfect his steering system. He experimented with magnetic compasses and various ways to detect course error (including fluid conductivity, photoelectric sensors and mechanical pick-off) before determining the best available detection method: fine wires with physical contact on the compass card itself.”

His family-run company, Metal Marine Pilot, produced a succession of autopilots--nicknamed the "Iron Mike”--until closing its doors in 2004. Click HERE to read the history.

As we all know, much has happened since then in the world of autopilots. Today the technology is "must have” equipment aboard a variety of recreational and commercial vessels. Click HERE for an article Marine Electronics Journal ran last year.

Below we look at seven autopilots that are at the pick of the litter. The lineup is part of an exercise that we do at MEJ every year—we call it the Best & Brightest Boating Electronics. We ask manufacturers to tell us which model in 16 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. Here’s what they told us:

 
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 one- 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 the possibility of 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.

 
 
As the newest member of the award-winning Evolution Autopilot line, the Raymarine EV150 Hydraulic Autopilot System is engineered specifically to meet the needs of small- to medium-sized hydraulically steered vessels with a steering ram capacity between 4.9 cu. in. (80 cc) and 14.0 cu in. (230 cc).  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.  

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. 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—it is the most responsive autopilot system Garmin has ever offered. 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.

Furuno NavPilot 300

Furuno’s NavPilot300 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 and a Gesture Controller, which allows you to simply point and shoot in any direction, controlling your vessel’s steering from anywhere onboard within 10 meters of the helm. Using the Gesture Controller, simply push the button, point to the desired heading, and release the button to let the autopilot redirect the boat. Imagine true point-and-click steering from anywhere on the boat. It also includes Furuno’s unique "Sabiki” mode, which controls 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, instead of steering.

 
 
With a 5.7 inch VGA color screen, an industrial grade encoder switch and a large course-change knob, the P4 offers a work mode for commercial operations and fishing vessels. Additionally, it has a navigation mode to track a waypoint or route. Thanks to the versatility of additional P4 displays and remote controllers (either tiller or joystick), the system offers full autopilot functionality with multiple stations fixed in strategic locations. The P4 is so flexible it can be utilized on vessels ranging from 10 to 300 meters (≤ 10,000 GWT). Through an array of standard features, including Intelligent Steering Technology and on-the-fly adjustments, the P4 has proven to be a very popular navigation tool among seafarers.

B&G Triton 2

The B&G Triton 2 is a smart, multipurpose instrument featuring a full-color display and modern glass helm styling. The display, paired with a Triton 2 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.

SI-TEX SP-38

The new 2019 SI-TEX SP-38 is a feature-packed professional autopilot ideal for a wide range of powerboats and commercial vessels up to about 100 feet LOA.  Intelligent Steering Technology (IST) learns vessel characteristics over time and fine-tunes itself for optimum performance. The SP-38 offers pre-defined operational parameter sets for full- or semi-displacement hulls, sterndrives and sailboats. It also offers a special Work Mode designed for commercial fishing boats, towboats and workboats. Proportional Rate Control (PRC) provides gentle and smooth steering response. Other professional features include Nav Mode for adaptive and precise track steering and Automatic Leeway Compensation (ALC) that adjusts for the effects of drift, tide and wind. An optional bow-thruster interface is available for precision drift fishing and hands-free station keeping.

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