Routing 1 of 7 : Planes, cars, boats and autopilots…

921G_Autopilot I have been reflecting on the ever increasing complexity and sophistication of electronics in general, and computer software in particular, in use on the average cruising yacht. It appears that the more we have the more we want and expect. In line with more functionality we also expect better reliability!

There appears to be a small but growing trend to move away from dedicated electronics with embedded software on board – like the dedicated Raymarine or Furuno chart plotters, to consumer electronics – laptops and even smart phones. If you look at some of the conversations on the forums some people admit that there laptop wasn’t made for a marine environment – but nevertheless expect it to work – and expect it to be responsible for critical if not life and death operations.

I am as much to blame – I love to see increasing functionality in software and to experiment with it and use it. The difference is attitude and expectation. I know the technology is fragile, and I am not surprised if it doesn’t work – and when (not if) it fails, I just get on with “plan B” – may be its my age 🙂

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a “grumpy old man’s” diatribe against the proliferation of electronics or the use of software on board – how could it be, I love all this stuff! …and I have more than most on my own boat 🙂

No, what I am trying to get at is that we should embrace new technology, we should use it, and we should let it inform us and improve our sailing and our decision making. But, we should be mindful of the old electrical engineering curse of FRED! – “Frigging Ridiculous Electronic Device”…and be ready at  a moments notice to ignore its failure and get on with sailing.

It was with all this in mind that I have been researching the top chart plotting software for leisure sailors that incorporate “Route Planning and Optimisation”. Some of the systems refer to “Weather Routing” and some go further and incorporate weather plus tidal streams plus obstacle avoidance.

In fact some of these systems can be bought as professional systems for cargo and large commercial veessels such as tugs and so on, and are full blown ECS and ECDIS systems. There is a timetable for the evolution of ECDIS/ECS systems that is interesting and will marke the end of the requirement for commercial vessels to carry paper charts – relying on electronic systems alone. Will this too be the sign of things ot come for leisure sailors? If so then the systems looked at here are well on the way to being this class of system – if they are not already in that category.

This type of functionality is really going to take electronic chart plotting to another level. I realise auto route calculation is not new – but it has come of age. We have already come to accept as normal that a boat on the high seas can get large amounts of information sent to it. We have come to expect as normal the excellent weather forecasting data, and sea state data that the various US government agencies distribute for free on the Internet. We have come to understand the improvements that can be made to raster chart data using the vector approach. and combining not only greater positional accuracy as charts are adjusted using the benefit of GPS – but also how they can be enhanced using 3D modelling and hundreds of thousands of satellite pictures. Finally we are seeing huge advances in the accuracy of bathymetric data, again care of the US Navy and Google agreements, which will improve tidal current predictions as well as the obstacle avoidance calculations.

But it may be wise to ponder for a moment about the state of the art in other industries…

autopilotPlanes are probably the most technologically advanced vehicles that we use every day. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars and undergo the strictest test and maintenance regimes of any piece of machinery in common use. They are flown by highly qualified and professional pilots. However they can still fail from time to time.

On October 7th 2008, a Qantas A330 suddenly lost 650ft in altitude after a fault caused the autopilot to disengage suddenly. Thirty-six people on board were hurt, 12 of them seriously, as occupants were slammed into the roof of the cabin. The pilot regained control, and no doubt flew on manual for the rest of the flight!


If you want to be  disconcerted further, you should cast an eye over these sites and check out the banter between airline pilots today…Just about flying and the Professional Pilots Rumour Network.

In every day use by less qualified “pilots” is the humble car. Again a technological miracle of mass production. These machines so advanced and nearly all have considerable computing power on board. As advanced and reliable as they are (when was the last time you even looked under the bonnet!) they can still fail from time to time.

In January 2010, we witnessed the spectacle of the president of Toyota Cars having to hand a formal apology to the Prime Minister of Japan for his company’s failure to spot a fault with the Prius causing a Toyota worldwide recall for a software upgrade to the anti-lock braking system. Akio Toyoda, told the US Congress that “we pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop, I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today…”

I am using the phrase autopilot thinking of what sophisticated autopilot systems can do on an aircraft, not the autohelm products that we currently see sold as “autopilot” in the marine business.

Perhaps at some point in the future a sophisticated marine autopilot system will take into account weather, routing preferences, craft characteristics, fuel consumption, time constraints, crew capability and preferences and many other relevant parameters to intelligently pilot a boat.

Where we are at the moment is we have equipment that will autohelm and we have software that will calculate “optimal” routes…. the creation of a truly sophisticated autopilot is perhaps, just around the corner.

I have been researching the latest ECS and ECDIS systems that incorporate “Route Planning and Optimisation”.

Lets be clear, none of the creators of this type of software would dream of classing their software as “autopilot”. But if I may put words in their mouth I think they would regard these very sophisticated ECS / ECDIS systems as a valuable addition to the crew – more of an “Autocrew”. this space for the results of my research into route planning and optimisation software….

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