Saturday, November 26, 2011

iPad for Marine Navigation

I recently bought an iPad with the idea of using it as a planning tool and backup chartplotter on my trip to Alaska next summer. I tested it out yesterday and it works great, with a few exceptions.

iPad mounted on the electronics shelf

I have several different charting apps installed on the iPad. My favorite is iNavX ($50), which is actually quite powerful. I have both NOAA raster charts (free!) and Navionics vector charts ($40). I prefer the Navionics charts because that's what I'm used to looking at on the Raymarine plotter. iNavX is quite powerful. It can display charts in either north up or course up, export routes (but you must have an internet connection), and even be interfaced into the NMEA network on the boat using a wireless multiplexer, which I don't have.

I also have the Navimatics West ($25) app installed. The charts are not nearly as detailed as the Navionics charts for iNavX but they could get the job done in an emergency. The best part of the Navimatics app is that it has Active Captain support, even when there's no internet connection. Active Captain is basically a TripAdvisor or Yelp for boaters, with reviews of marinas, anchorages, etc. Offline support is critical, since roaming charges and poor cell coverage limit internet availability when cruising in remote areas.

Finally, I have an old iPhone version of the Navionics app. I think it only cost $10 and has charts from the Columbia River to Glacier Bay. Big value, although it's not great on the iPad and doesn't offer the advanced features that iNavX does.

Another great app is NOAA Buoy and Tide Data ($2). The name of the app is quite descriptive. Basically, it makes weather buoy data and tide information easily viewable on the iPad when it has an internet connection.

All of these apps also run on my iPhone.

The internal GPS on the iPad (only 3G models have internal GPS antennas) seems to be good. It doesn't respond quite as quickly as the Raymarine GPS, but it's better than my iPhone 3GS GPS. A word of warning: the iPad chews through battery quickly when using the GPS, so it's best to have it plugged in when you can.

I mounted my iPad on a RAM mount, through bolted to the electronics shelf above the helm. The mount is sturdy, adjustable, and all but the small base is easily removable for the times that the iPad isn't aboard or being used.

My hope is to plan out routes in advance on the iPad, export them to the Raymarine C80, and let the autopilot steer the route. This is proving to be more difficult than I hoped. For now, the only way to export routes from iNavX is through email or xTraverse (a cloud based map, waypoint, and route utility). Unfortunately, this requires an internet connection, which I often won't have. The iNavX developer has told me that a new release will allow syncing routes with a computer via USB and I hope this will be the case. But once I have the routes on my computer, I still face several issues. iNavX does not export routes in a format that the Raymarine system can read, so I have to use a utility called GPSBabel (free) to convert the files into a Raymarine Waypoint File. Shockingly, this file is still not readable by my Raymarine chartplotter. Instead, I must use RayTech Planner (free, Windows only) to convert the files into the correct format and then export them to a compact flash card. I have yet to get this whole process to work correctly, but remain optimistic that it is possible.

Alternately, I could install a Brookhouse iMux. This is an NMEA multiplexer that would wirelessly link the iPad (or laptop, iPhone, etc.) to the Raymarine network. Theoretically, I would then be able to transfer routes over the network or even drive the autopilot directly from the iPad. I may explore this route more fully if I can't get the cheaper first option working.

One of the great things about the iPad is that it offers a lot more than just navigation. I can watch movies, browse the internet, check weather, and read email. It's a great addition to the boat, with a lot of uses beyond navigation.

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