[It’s another MadMariner feature from a few weeks back. Since this went live while I was at the Seattle Boat Show, I was able to get some feedback on it right away from the folks at Standard Horizon.
Their position is that the inconvenient NMEA networking requirement I identified is NOT a problem for consumers, and that they hadn’t received feedback from other users about difficulties completing the NMEA networking part of the installation. My situation is unique because I’m continuing, for the moment, to rely an older chartplotter with just one NMEA 0183 port.
If so, I’m thrilled! I would love to learn that I’m the only one who finds this inconvenient. That would be awesome, because this appears to be a tremendous product otherwise. —Tim]
I wrote about Standard Horizon’s new products in the Matrix line of fixed-mount VHF radios when they were first announced back in November. The thing that caught my eye was the AIS integration these models included. The GX2000 accepts the datastream from an external AIS receiver or transceiver, while the GX2100 includes an integrated two-channel AIS receiver, the data from which can be connected to a chartplotter or laptop.
[The GX2000 accepts the datastream from an external AIS receiver or transceiver, while the GX2100 includes an integrated two-channel AIS receiver, the data from which can be connected to a chartplotter or laptop.]
AIS/DSC/VHF integration will be extremely beneficial for most boat owners, in my opinion. It’s easy for propeller-headed geeks like me to forget that the vast majority of recreational boats do not carry AIS receivers of any kind. As one of my cruising buddies put it, "If an AIS receiver is basically just a VHF radio and some kind of a modem, then I’ll buy it when it’s built into the regular VHF radio."
That time has come, my friend. I think these Standard Horizon radios could make AIS a lot more attractive to a significant and largely untapped market: Owners of smaller boats with older, perfectly serviceable navigation electronics.
What makes these AIS-integrated VHF radios so wonderful? Two things spring to mind: usability and ease of installation.
AIS/DSC/VHF integration makes both AIS and DSC more powerful, and more user-friendly.
The Matrix display acts as a low-resolution AIS and DSC plotter, if it has both AIS and vessel-position GPS data. For small boats and tenders that might not have radar or a chartplotter at all, the display on the Matrix units could prove useful, whether your priority is locating and identifying large vessels (AIS) or locating and making contact with vessels in distress (DSC).
But even more important in terms of shear usability, these two units permit one-button DSC hailing to vessels broadcasting AIS. As I’ve written before (here and here), DSC is a potentially powerful but terribly underutilized communication protocol. It’s really a shame, but users can hardly be blamed if they never use DSC at all.
Have you ever tried to input a MMSI number into your DSC radio while underway? Particularly while you are navigating in fog or other difficult conditions when AIS, radar, etc. are intended to help? I have, and it’s nearly impossible. I’m squinting into a tiny screen that is bouncing around like crazy, and my fingers are fumbling the knob trying to dial in each digit. God help you if you make a mistake. Except in emergencies, when the one-button "Distress" feature comes in mighty handy, DSC just isn’t usable for most of us.
[Instead of keying in a long MMSI number one digit at a time, you just select the AIS target you want to hail, and press the soft-key labeled “Call.” The radio already has the MMSI, so there’s no need for you to enter it manually.]
AIS/DSC/VHF integration like that included in these Standard Horizon units may begin to change that. Instead of keying in a long MMSI number one digit at a time, you just select the AIS target you want to hail, and press the soft-key labeled "Call." The radio already has the MMSI, so there’s no need for you to enter it manually. Nice.
Second, and just as important for owners of smaller boats with limited space and smaller chartplotters, AIS/VHF integration makes it much easier to install AIS.
To begin with, it’s easier to install one component rather than two, and it’s easier to install one antenna rather than two. The GX2100 model, which includes an onboard dual-channel AIS receiver, requires only one antenna, eliminating the bother and expense of installing a second antenna for AIS. Antenna manufacturers tell us that AIS units should really have dedicated antennae tuned to the AIS frequencies, but my own unscientific testing indicates that regular VHF antennae work just fine for AIS.
But beyond these basics, the new Standard Horizon Matrix AIS radios really shine when it comes to NMEA networking. Or they ought to, anyway.
Longtime readers will remember all the trouble I had trying to network my AIS receiver, my DSC VHF radio, and my chartplotter.
[I'm really impressed with the thought that went into the design of these new AIS-integrated VHF radios from Standard Horizon. They are definitely on the right track.]
The trouble was that my Raymarine C-series chartplotter only sports a single NMEA connection, which can be configured for either low-speed 4800-baud or high-speed 34,800 NMEA 0183 data traffic. AIS requires the high-speed connection, while virtually every VHF
radio on the market requires the slower connection.
These new Standard Horizon models, equipped to handle high-speed AIS data traffic, seemed to offer the ideal solution to the sort of problem I experienced: Just one high-speed, two-way NMEA 0183 connection between my plotter and the VHF/AIS would allow all the data to move where it needs to: GPS data from the chartplotter would get to the VHF, supporting location-tagged DSC calls, including distress calls; AIS data from the VHF’s integrated AIS receiver would get to the chartplotter, so it could be displayed there; DSC data – such as the location of a vessel placing a DSC "Distress" call – would get from the VHF to the chartplotter, allowing it to be displayed there as well.
This is great. No $300 NMEA multiplexer needed. No kooky NMEA traffic runarounds to get the data where it’s needed. And at long last, my chartplotter’s single NMEA 0183 port won’t prevent me from enjoying the full benefits of all my marine electronics.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when I dug deeper into the Matrix GX2000/GX2100 manual and read the following: "The GPS must have the NMEA Output […] set to 4800 baud." Wait, what? Why? To make matters even worse, the DSC message are, apparently, fed back through this same tiny NMEA pipe. They aren’t aggregated into the high-bandwidth NMEA pipe that carries the AIS datastream.
I figured I must have misunderstood, so I made contact with Standard Horizon directly, where I reached Product Manager Scott Iverson. Scott was very helpful, and he understood the situation I described perfectly, but it was his unfortunate duty to inform me that I had not misunderstood the manual after all.
Besides finding this frustrating for my individual situation, I find it perplexing, as well. If the Matrix AIS units are capable of handling high-speed AIS traffic, why require a second, low-bandwidth NMEA port as well?
I doubt that my situation is all that unique. Lots of boaters have older chartplotters that work fine, but have a limited number of NMEA ports. I write Navagear, and I have no plans to upgrade my 2004 chartplotter at this point. And although most newer chartplotters include more than a single NMEA port, that’s no reason to use up two of them when one could handle all the traffic. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
I appreciate that the Matrix AIS units need to receive GPS coordinates, and aboard many boats, that NMEA data will come in at 4800 baud. So the possibility of an incoming 4800-baud datastream must be supported. But there’s no reason the VHF’s outgoing DSC data needs to move at 4800 baud; certainly not if the chartplotter on the receiving end is capable of receiving the high-bandwidth AIS datastream.
It’s impossible to design a product that is optimal for every customer scenario. I understand this. And obviously I tend to imagine that the problems I experience are more or less typical for a lot of potential customers who are interested in new technology, but don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on electronics upgrades every year; I could be mistaken about that. Still, I just can’t get over the feeling that requiring two NMEA connections operating at two incompatible speeds represents a small miscalculation in an otherwise amazing product design.
BULL’S-EYE? NOT QUITE
I’m really impressed with the thought that went into the design of these new AIS-integrated VHF radios from Standard Horizon. They are definitely on the right track. In five years, all manufacturers will support AIS/DSC/VHF integration, and we’ll all be a little shocked when we recall that this wasn’t completely obvious way, way back in the early 21st century.
And as a veteran of the high-tech industry myself (software, not hardware), I can appreciate how difficult it can be when designing a product to place yourself in the position of a customer who is not a "propeller-headed geek" embracing all the latest and greatest technology the moment it becomes available.
Meanwhile, though, out there in the real world, the vast majority of potential customers pick and choose what new technology they’re willing to bother with. If the benefits are clear, the hassle is minimal, and the price is right, they’ll embrace it. I fear that Standard Horizon has unintentionally neglected a portion of the potential market for these innovative radios, and I think that’s a shame.
Nonetheless, I plan to upgrade my VHF radio to one of these new models. I’m looking forward to the benefits of AIS/DSC/VHF integration, once I work out the tricky NMEA data routing!