Remote Monitoring for your Vessel

Written by Bob Arrington

It is a familiar sight at marinas everywhere. As a boat owner is leaving their boat, they turn around one last time to look. A boat is a prized possession for most owners. It’s not just another toy they’ve acquired. It’s the realization of their dreams. It’s no wonder owners take that last long look before they have to leave it. Whether the weekend or season is over, you want to be certain it is safe and secure before it is out of their sight. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could continue to watch over it?

Internet of Things

The ability to not only monitor our boat remotely, but actually turn items on and off within the boat is now made possible by the revolution called “The Internet of Things” or “IoT.” IoT is the internetworking of physical items. These items, when equipped with sensors or actuators and connected to a network, enable the collection and exchange of data. Applied to our boats, this opens amazing opportunities to know what is happening or control items on the boat while we are away from it.

Remote boat monitoring and control systems are available from a range of manufacturers, some of which were technology companies adapting their products to boats. Some of which were boaters who saw a need and created a company by assembling available components. The differences show up in some of their application programs and ease of use for the boat owner.

All of the systems generally follow the same principle — a series of sensors or actuators are connected to a hub. The hub then communicates the sensor’s information through a WiFi, cellular or satellite network to an app installed on a smart phone or tablet. When selecting a monitoring system, one of the factors will be deciding on the communication network the products use and which best suits your needs. If your boat stays in a modern marina with a stable WiFi, a system that communicates over a WiFi network may be your best choice. If you travel aboard your boat to remote locations or internationally, a system that communicates over cellular or satellite networks may be more reliable. Be mindful there are differences in cellular network equipment; some work great in the United States and Canada, but may not work elsewhere in the world. Other cellular networks work over a wide area of the world. It’s best to know where you will be cruising before selecting. The costs also vary with the system type, with WiFi being the least expensive, then cellular and satellite typically being the most expensive. When selecting a system that uses the cellular network to send the notifications, it is also helpful to know which generation technology is used, 2G, 3G or 4G. We are accustomed to 4G networks being the norm for voice communication, but many systems still transmit data using 2G or 3G technology, which is not as dependable. This can affect how well the unit will work in different coverage areas as you travel.

Many of the systems require ongoing fees or subscriptions in order to stay active. If the system you choose has a subscription, verify if you are entering an annual contract as part of the agreement. If your boat is hauled out during part of the year, it may be better to find a system that allows monthly terms or the option to suspend the service during the haul-out period.

Method of Linking Components

Each individual sensor monitors specific information like battery voltage, integrity of shore power connection or bilge pump activity. Most systems sensors are wireless, meaning there is no need to chase wire through the boat connecting the sensors to the hub. The wireless systems are easier to install, but also may have some limitations. For example, there is a maximum distance the sensors can be from the hub — in some cases as little as 30 feet. If your boat is very large, this may require more than one hub. Wireless systems use either Bluetooth or ultra-high frequency radio waves as the link between the sensors and hub. Each method can experience interference from materials or other electronics aboard the boat. Consult with the manufacturers about your specific application to determine which is best for your boat.

Matching Hardware to Application

Knowing which components you want to monitor or control may help you decide on one brand over another. Some systems come prepackaged in a kit form with a few specific sensors and a hub unit. For some boats this may be limiting, and having the a la carte ability to tailor the system to your vessel may be a better choice. All systems can monitor battery voltage, but if you have multiple battery systems or engine start batteries of 12 volts and a 24-volt house bank, you’ll need a system with the capability to monitor those independently. Some systems enable a video feed from onboard cameras, some do not. Not all manufacturer’s systems allow device control, such as turning on or off air conditioning or lighting. Consult system capabilities if device control is a feature you intend on using.

Method of Communication

The method of communicating varies among the systems. Some systems send notifications through an app on your smart device. Some systems send SMS text messages, some use email and some use a combination of these methods. A helpful feature available on certain systems requires the boat owner to acknowledge the notice or it will send a repeat notice or a notice by a different method. The more advanced systems are also monitored by a central station similar to a land based alarm company. If there is no acknowledgement of the notice, the station operator will attempt to locate the boat owner. Also look for systems that will allow more than one person to be contacted.

Theft Deterrence and GPS Tracking

One of the nicest features of remote monitoring systems is theft deterrence. With this feature, when the system is set, alarms and lights can be programmed to come on when an intruder attempts entry. More advanced systems prevent engines from starting when activated. If the boat is moved, the systems provide GPS tracking to locate the boat.

An added benefit to all of these features is a possible reduction in your insurance premiums. The GPS tracking feature on some systems can also be used to allow family and friends to follow you along on your travels.

Ability to Update

Make sure the system has the ability to easily accept firmware or software updates over the internet, and does not require the components to be returned to the manufacturer to install the updates.

Remote monitoring technology is advancing rapidly. New features are being introduced at boat shows every year, providing boat owners with more ability to monitor and control their boats when life takes them away from their favorite pastime.

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