One of the challenges in replacing your old onboard electronics with the latest wizardry is making the existing sensors work properly with that new multifunction display (MFD) or replacing the many sensors with compatible devices, which can be costly. Veteran transducer manufacturer Airmar introduced a solution that pulls data from the old sensors and converts it for use on the NMEA 2000 network. Below, company Marketing Director Craig Cushman explains how the SmartBoat module works.
By Craig Cushman
Modular system integrates existing sensor data with new MFDs
Planning a complete electronics upgrade on a vessel can be a daunting task. Technicians need to have a solid understanding of which components have to be replaced and which existing components, if any, can be integrated into the new monitoring system. It’s a certainty that the MFDs (Multifunction Displays) and network will be replaced, but a tougher question is how to integrate those new MFDs with sensor data from existing pumps, switches, resistive tank senders, diesel engines, and temperature sensors of many types. Replacing these sensors is complex and, depending on where they are located, nearly impossible to reach. Quoting a full-scale refit can be difficult since often assumptions have to be made during the bidding process as to what types of existing sensors are on board. If you factor in the time and expense of just trying to figure out which individual sensor modules are needed for specific types of monitoring, it’s apparent that there must be a better way.
The SmartBoat system from Airmar is an easy and cost-effective method to integrate existing vessel sensor data with a new upgraded, modern helm. Multiple analog sensors of nearly any type can be directly connected to the SmartBoat module, and regardless of their protocol, they can be converted to communicate on the NMEA 2000 network. This NMEA 2000-certified device supports a wide range of analog sensor types such as thermistors, resistive senders, binary switches, relays, run detectors and more, all easily connected without the need for expensive, proprietary sensor translation modules, which can drive the cost of alternative upgrade paths out of reach of most customers. With the SmartBoat system, if an early assumption about sensor types was wrong, simply choose the correct sensor type from the software’s drop-down menu. The correction is painless. Often, other solutions require re-purchasing sensor modules or adding more capability than what is needed.
"The overall combined features of one SmartBoat module makes it a powerful product. The flexibility to connect multiple sensors to one module and easily configure and set conditions and alerts using the intuitive SmartFlex View software is impressive,” says Jennifer Matsis, VP of Sales and Marketing.
Each SmartBoat module has an internal web server hosting browser-based software called SmartFlex View. This software features drop-down menus that guide installers through the set-up and allow for customization of each sensor on the network. All modules have built-in Wi-Fi and NMEA 2000 capabilities, with advanced modules including a second CAN network (NMEA 2000, J1939 or diesel fuel flow sensors), Ethernet and USB 2.0 capability. Modules can be added to an install as capabilities are needed and the network expanded to include wired or wireless connections between modules. This makes larger vessel retrofit projects a straight-forward integration for bringing legacy sensors on the boat onto the MFDs at the helm.
"For technicians, one of the excellent advantages of the SmartFlex View software is the ability to see devices and their PGN messages being transmitted on the network without the need for a gateway or additional software,” adds Matsis.
82-foot Burger retrofit
Earlier this year Airmar participated in the retrofit of an 82-foot Burger motor yacht in Florida. The vessel was manufactured in 1996 and very well maintained. The original monitoring and control system was manufactured by a company called ISIS, which was widely used at the time. They are no longer in production and there is limited support and service parts available for their systems. This ISIS system monitored engines, fluid levels, AC and DC voltage/current, fire/smoke detection sensors and various temperature parameters. The ISIS control panel and monitoring screens had failed quite a few years ago. All that was known was the number of tanks on the vessel and a rough number of sensors, though none of the exact sensor specifications were fully understood.
As you can imagine, the thought of replacing every sensor in the vessel to become compatible with a modern monitoring/control system was a daunting and incredibly expensive proposition, but the SmartBoat system’s flexibility provided the ability to handle them. Some of the fluid senders were located under generators and appliances that would have been very difficult and costly to remove. A vessel such as this (and thousands more like it) is a perfect candidate for SmartBoat since it’s able to utilize nearly every sensor that existed in the vessel and convert its output to industry standard NMEA 2000 messages. SmartBoat connection also adds value by providing additional monitoring, automation and alerting options that would not be available on a vessel of this vintage.
Because of the size of the installation, the installers broke the SmartBoat work into two stages. This first stage included all the critical systems, which consisted of seven fluid tanks, DC voltage of the two starting batteries, multiple cabin humidity/temp senders, engine room temp and the engines themselves. The second phase included SmartFlex diesel fuel monitors.
On the first day the majority of the sensor wiring was run directly to the Airmar Smart Modules (ASM), where it was determined that they were mostly voltage based. The ASM software was able to convert the variable-voltage input to a NMEA 2000 output, and the fluid levels immediately began reporting flawlessly on the Garmin displays. For years, the captain kept notebook logs of every fill-up and trip usage so that he could estimate remaining fuel levels. Needless to say, that was less than perfect. He is ecstatic that he can now accurately monitor his tanks, especially since he is using all the existing senders that had not reported fuel levels for many years.
The remainder of the vessel’s sensor connections were resistive, current loop temp and voltage-based sensors. These are all standard menu selections in the SmartFlex View configuration software, and each converted as expected and their data appeared at the helm trouble-free.
Phase two of the upgrade was installation of the SmartFlex diesel fuel flow sensors. This is a highly accurate CAN-based fuel flow monitoring system that features exclusive differential sensors, incorporating both the feed and return fuel lines into a single housing. This approach reduces the footprint and installation time of a typical system, which requires one sender for the feed and another for the return. The sensor’s onboard CAN-based processor precisely analyzes flow, temperature and other parameters to deliver accurate fuel information to the ASM module. This data is then available to any device on the NMEA 2000 network. Once the sensors were programmed fuel monitoring was available on the Garmin MFDs rather than needing isolated, dedicated displays.
The project had a total of six modules being installed. There are two ASM-CES-T2 and one ASM-CES installed in the engine room, and two ASM-CES-T2 and one ASM-CES-T1 in the doghouse, located directly beneath the helm station. This gave the ability to monitor everything the original system did and still have available inputs for additional monitoring and functionality.
One great feature of SmartBoat is that there is no external software or proprietary gateway required to configure, view or monitor the operating software. Each module contains Wi-Fi and has a built-in web server that provides access to the configuration and documentation. Any Wi-Fi-capable device with an internet browser can be used to access and configure the modules. Modules in the system can be wired or wirelessly connected through a common router, resulting in single-point access to configure and view the status of all the modules on the network.
The end result was a retrofit that far exceeded the expectations of the owners. Over the next few days, the technicians worked with the captain to begin setting up the alerting features within SmartFlex Alert that enabled custom alerts based on sensor parameters. Into the future, the captain can control the conditions for alarms, automations and communication of data over the networks.