When we last visited the subject of remote boat monitoring, it was an emerging technology with young innovative companies developing smart phone apps that informed you if your boat’s battery died or a bilge pump came on when you were away from the boat. Today, those startups have matured into sophisticated technology companies, offering a range of services to help manage and monitor your boat.
These companies began their businesses from different starting points. Some technology companies adapted their products to boats. A few were boaters who saw a need based on their boating experience and developed products to address that need. The differences show up in some of their application programs and ease of use for the boat owner.
All the systems generally follow the same concept, using a series of sensors or actuators connected to a hub or base station. The hub then communicates the sensor’s information through a Wi-Fi, cellular or satellite network to an app installed on a smart phone or tablet.
When selecting a monitoring system, first consider what method of communication best suits your needs. If your boat stays in a modern marina with a stable Wi-Fi, a system that communicates over a Wi-Fi network may be acceptable. The downside to Wi-Fi-only systems is their need to use a mobile hotspot or other means of connecting to a data network to report a problem when you’re away from a marina.
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 of differences in cellular network equipment: some work great in the United States and Canada but may not work elsewhere in the world. Look for cellular networks that work over a wide area. It’s best to know where you will be cruising before selecting.
The costs also vary with the system type, with Wi-Fi being the least expensive, then cellular and satellite typically the most expensive. When selecting a system that uses a cellular network to send notifications, it is also helpful to know which generation technology is used: 3G, 4G or the growing 5G. We are accustomed to 4G networks being the norm for voice communication, but many systems still transmit data using older 3G technology, which in parts of the country is being eliminated from cellular towers. 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 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
All systems work on a sensor and hub network. Individual sensors monitor specific information such as battery voltage, integrity of shore power connection or bilge pump activity. Systems use either hard-wired or wireless sensors. 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, it may require more than one hub.
The early wireless systems used either Bluetooth or ultra-high frequency radio waves as the link between the sensors and hub. The connections were generally stable; however, it’s not uncommon to have interference from materials or other electronics on board. Today, industry-leading companies use an LTE Category-M communication protocol, which allows high volumes of IoT data to be transmitted at lower rates of power. The latest version of wireless sensors also uses a more reliable advanced sub-gigahertz network.
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 small boats, this may suit your needs perfectly. A prepackaged arrangement may be inadequate for larger or more complex boats.
An a-la-carte capability 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 that can monitor those independently.
Some systems enable a video feed from onboard cameras; some do not. Not all manufactures’ systems allow device control, such as turning on or off the air conditioning or lighting. Consult system capabilities if device control is a feature you intend to use.
Method of Communication
The method of communicating varies among the systems. Some send notifications through an app on your smart device. Some systems send SMS text messages; others use email or a combination of both. A helpful feature on certain systems requires the boat owner to acknowledge the notice or it will send a repeat message or a notice by a different method.
The more advanced systems are also monitored by a central station like a land-based alarm company. If the notice isn’t acknowledged, the station operator will attempt to locate the boat owner. A few of the companies offer web-based computer access to your hub if you are away from a cellular connection. Lastly, look for systems that allow more than one person to be contacted.
Theft Deterrence & GPS Tracking
One of the most valuable 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 were to be moved, the systems provide GPS tracking to locate it.
An added benefit to all these features is a possible reduction in insurance premiums. The GPS tracking feature on some systems can also allow family and friends to follow along on your travels.
Ability to Update
Make sure the system can easily accept firmware or software updates over the Internet and does not require the components to be returned to the manufacturer to install updates.
Remote monitoring technology is advancing rapidly. New features are introduced at boat shows every year, providing more ability to monitor and control boats when life takes you away from your favorite pastime.
Monitoring Technology Manufacturers
Across Ocean Systems