Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
Integration - 1 February, 2016
I am not talking today about whether or not the cruising community is sufficiently diverse. That may be a topic for another day,
but I doubt it. People choose to do what they choose to do. No, today's topic has to do with whether or not you should buy
your boat systems from the same manufacturer. In other words, are your systems integrated or diverse?
Diverse systems seem to make a lot of sense. It is hard to believe that the company that makes the best autopilot motor also
makes the best RADAR unit and the best VHF radio. If all of those systems were expected to operate independently of each
other, then there would be no reason not to buy the best RADAR, the best autopilot and the best VHF radio.
But something happened in marine electronics over the past twenty years or so. Systems became integrated. The output
from the RADAR unit can feed into the chartplotter, which is also taking AIS information from the VHF radio and sending
information to the autopilot to keep the boat on course.
This is probably a good thing, if the person on watch is still paying attention to everything. The more information can flow
between these subsystems, the more it can be integrated into a comprehensive picture of the environment. Giving a single
place to look for the "big picture" is usually better than forcing a watchstander to bounce around between to RADAR unit, the
chartplotter, the engine instruments, etc.
But, this assumes that the equipment talks to each other seamlessly. In theory, most electronics can use a standard protocol,
developed by a group called the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA), to transfer data between disparate
equipment. There are actually several protocols, since the data to be interchanged is a moving target. Every few years, new
equipment comes out that works faster and knows more, so the information that has to be moved increases.
But almost all manufacturers also have a "proprietary" format which is designed to work between in-house equipment better
than with equipment from other manufacturers. Obviously, if I am the president of Acme Electronics, I want you to buy an
Acme chartplotter and an Acme RADAR. So, while I may set both of those up to use the current NMEA standard, I will do my
best to make sure that ACMENet works even better on my equipment than the NMEA standard. Then I will do my best to tell
you how much better ACMENet is than the NMEA standard. My equipment will work SO MUCH BETTER using ACMENet, that it
is worth it to you, the consumer, to accept that my RADAR is not as good as Ajax RADAR and my chartplotter is not as good
as Zenith chartplotters. In other words, my goal is to convince you that the whole of the units is greater than the sum of the
Now, it might be possible to buy all of your electronics from different companies and pay an electronics technician to connect
them together in a way that maximizes the power and utility of each one. The worry there becomes unit failure. Suppose the
Ajax RADAR stops talking to the Zenith chartplotter. Is it a problem with the RADAR, the chartplotter or the wiring in-between?
An Ajax tech rep will tell you that the problem is in the chartplotter and the Zenith tech rep will swear the chartplotter is working
fine, so it must be the RADAR. You could go back to the original installation guru - after all, she got it right the first time - but
she is a thousand miles away by now.
What to do, what to do? Unfortunately, there is no really good answer. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
By the way, to make the problem even more interesting, this year's Acme RADAR may not talk to last year's Acme
chartplotter. New features and changes in technology may make the two systems incompatible within the same manufacturer.
Add in the fact that sometimes company A buys company B and starts slapping their own label on gear they never built.
This becomes a real problem when you have a nice tight integrated system that is working well together - and a single unit
fails. You want to replace your Acme RADAR unit, which you bought in 2001, with a new 2016 Acme RADAR unit. But
between 2001 and 2016, Acme stopped making conventional RADAR units and is now into fourth generation digital RADAR.
Fortunately, 4th generation digital RADAR is super accurate. You can pick out individual birds at 8 miles and it can track a
thundercloud moving across your path at 100 miles. Unfortunately, none of this data will display on your 2001 Acme
Now, you can replace your chartplotter with a 2016 Acme chartplotter, but then it may or may not be able to handle the input
from your 2001 Acme depth sounder and wind instruments, and it may or may not be able to control your 2001 Acme
autopilot. Replace it all? Replace as you go and hope for the best? Chuck it all and buy the new Ajax integrated system?
There is one obvious solution, of course.
Buy a Hobie Cat and stick to daysailing.