By Andy Adams

There has been a real change in the focus and direction we’ve seen in marine electronics in recent years. Gone are the standalone equipment pieces, replaced by multifunction devices capable of “talking” to the other electronic devices on board your boat.

To get first-hand information on what is really happening in the field, we traveled to CMC Electronics Esterline and spent the morning with Lead Technical Service Representative, Lorne Spence.

He began by saying that simply incredible advances in capability have resulted from the interconnection of your navigation system components.

In turn, simply incredible advances in technology are behind these changes and the piece of equipment that used to have a dedicated circuit board of components somewhere inside, has evolved into an actual computer that in many cases, is running an Intel chipset the same as your home computer has.

There’s another very important similarity between the new marine electronics and your home computing devices. Whether you have a PC, iMac computer, notebook, tablet…you regularly receive software updates via the Internet.

You are used to this with your computer. But, the industry is discovering that many people have not yet begun to apply the same thinking to their marine electronics.  If you had a notebook computer that you were using in your business and it was let’s say, five years old, I’m betting that you would be planning to replace it any day. It would be an old computer and out of date.

Modern chart plotters are essentially marinized computers.  The same as we get computer operating system updates from Windows and Mac, we now get software updates on marine plotters and other equipment.

Originally, the purpose of updates was to correct software ‘bugs’ and to ensure compatibilities between products.  Now more and more, we're starting to see manufacturers adding new features through software updates.

Lorne Spence emphasized that in most cases, these software updates are free.  So, the equipment you bought a couple of years ago can now stay current through free software updates and actually perform better now than the equipment did when it was new.

Marine equipment software updates are done by downloading the software from the manufacturer’s website.  If you register your product with Raymarine for example, they will email you when a software update for your product comes available.  Once you have the software on your notebook, you copy the files onto a blank memory card, be it Compact Flash or Micro SD; whatever your marine equipment can read.  The new Raymarine plotters have a fully automated update process and it's very easy for even a novice to do.

Also, owners will often add new equipment to their navigation system over time, ending up with different pieces from different ‘generations’ of systems.  Ensuring you have the latest software can often fix problems you may encounter in connecting “new” with “old” equipment. If you were to call the help desk or customer service line,  the first question technical support will usually ask is, "Does your plotter have the latest software version in it?"

For an example of just how fast and frequent these software updates can be, look at the most recent Raymarine ‘C’ and ‘E’ series plotter software updates and the list of features that have been added:

Version 5.27 - Jan 2013  (current version as of this writing)
•Solution for internal sonar module to be directly connected to a 1KW transducer (600w Output Only).

Version 5.24 - Dec 2012
•Fuel Management
•Expanded Engine Data and Alarms
•Document and Photo viewer (view your product manuals on your MFD)
•Thermal Camera Slew-to-cue integration
•IP Camera Support
•On Screen Zoom keys added to Sirius Weather App (North America only)
•Ability to view NMEA 0183/SeaTalkNG data statistics and buffer as well as save to mSD card
Version 4.27 - Fall 2012
•Addition of four on-screen touchscreen controls, an ACCEPT touch screen button added to Limitations of Use welcome page  and improved Power Key shortcuts to Brightness and Capture Screen image options

Version 3.15 - April 2012
•A huge list of more than a dozen enhancements including added support for Raymarine CP450C CHIRP Sonar Module, support for AIS features, limited support for Sirius Marine Weather Module and several more including a Standby / PowerSave Mode and enhanced home screen customize option permitting 9 and 12 inch MFDs to view up to 4 applications on a single page and so on.
v2.10 - Spring 2012
- Cartography redraw performance has been improved when sharing over the display network, added support to display fuel flow rate and three more valuable features including the ability to manually change the aspect ratio in the video application.

 Many of these update features have been driven by customer feedback from individuals just like you, using their equipment out in the real world. Another big driver for change are the technologies coming from other manufacturers.

A great example is the fact that Raymarine was quick to update their software to operate with both iPads and android devices. The benefits and additional capabilities available by connecting your regular mobile device into your marine navigation system was well documented in the “iPad Onboard” article by Mark Bunzel in the March 2013 issue of Canadian Yachting, starting on page 34.
Another huge advance in marine technology, in safety and in end-user convenience has been the introduction of thermal imaging cameras from companies like FLIR. Some of the new software updates enable you to control your FLIR thermal imaging camera using your iPad with its many quick and convenient touch and zoom controls.

An advance that we think is wonderful is the recently added ability to view a PDF on the various screens on board your boat. More and more manufacturers [Ray Marine is one] are putting detailed user manuals into digital PDF form so when you need information to do an unfamiliar task, you can put a write up on your multifunction display, digitally move from the index to the article and find out what you need to know without having a printed manual on board.

We expect that video capabilities will also be coming soon to a helm station near you!

All of this is impressive and yet the software update process is simple. As we said earlier, if you’ve registered your equipment on the manufacturer’s website you can usually get these updates for free on the Internet when you’re at home. From there, you can copy them to something as tiny as a micro-SDR.

With the Ray Marine equipment, you simply plug that card into your chop larder chart plotter and its plug-and-play–the software will self install in a matter of minutes. Follow the screen prompts, click except when you’re asked and your system will be updated.

When talking to Lorne Spence at CMC Electronics Esterline, the exclusive Raymarine distributor in Canada, he emphasized that even if you let your systems get out of date, there’s a good chance you can go straight to the latest update. You can skip the interim steps and still have the latest and greatest.

If a consumer isn’t comfortable doing software updates themselves, many retailers and installers are happy to do the update for a nominal fee. We know of several good chandlery’s who can handle this for you and of course any qualified marine electronics installer can handle the task as well.

Understandably, Lorne was focused on the product lines that CMC Electronics distributes but he wanted to emphasize the importance of keeping your software up-to-date no matter whose equipment you own. Introducing great new capabilities and embracing advances in user convenience and safety is an industry-wide thrust.