On Point

Today's autopilots do more than get boaters to a waypoint smoothly.

  Just like the smartphone in your hand or the car backup camera that helps you avoid collisions in the grocery store parking lot, autopilot is a must-have tool, especially for boaters who go deep offshore.

“The autopilot doesn’t go for coffee breaks or look around at different stuff,” said Kunz, Furuno USA’s senior product manager. “Assuming everything else is working right and your autopilot is dialed in, it’s a super tool.”

Today’s autopilots offer more robust features and are more affordable than models introduced just a few years ago. When autonomous systems make their way into the recreational boat market, the autopilot will be at the heart of the system.

Autopilot was introduced nearly 100 years ago when Elmer Sperry built the first one, nicknamed Metal Mike, to steer large vessels. The gyroscope-guided autopilot was too big for recreational boats, but that changed in 1974 when inventor Derek Fawcett created a tiller-mounted autopilot for smaller boats. While autopilots still serve the same purpose — take a vessel to a waypoint — the latest generation of autopilots is better at adjusting for sea conditions, less taxing on the steering system and can save on fuel costs.

Autopilots are simple to use but are complex marine electronics. An autopilot generally consists of a computer, a control head, a drive unit and a compass. The user enters a waypoint on the control head, and the computer, taking cues from the compass, sends a signal to the drive unit, which powers either an electric or hydraulic ram connected to the tiller bar.

Though autopilots can stand alone, most are networked to a multifunction display such as a plotter. A networked system allows for greater functionality, especially if the components are from the same manufacturer.

A common complaint about older autopilots — they caused excessive drive and steering system wear — has been eliminated on newer models thanks to complex software algorithms. But manufacturers said the old autopilots get an unfair rap, because those issues are often related to poor installation, faulty electronics or a lack of general maintenance.

“We’ve gotten good at autopilots, not trying to sound arrogant or anything,” said Dave Dunn, director of marine sales and marketing for Garmin. “(But) we’ve invested a lot of time and money into learning about them.”

Manufacturers point to better compasses and improved interfaces as reasons why autopilots are better today than the units sold just a few years ago. Companies quickly realized the limitations of fluxgate compasses — a metal ring floating in oil — and switched to solid-state sensors. Unlike fluxgate compasses, which can be impacted by vibrations and electronic interference, newer autopilot sensors monitor everything from positioning to pitch and roll. Each sensor can provide up to 50 readings per second to the processor.

“A traditional compass is your cardinal direction and it’s just on a single plane, so if the boat is pitching or rolling real bad or heeling, the compass doesn’t know any different,” Dunn said. “Now the new compasses, like our nine-axis sensor, can detect heel, pitch, and roll, and the autopilot compensates for that, so you get a much straighter, more efficient path, and it doesn’t overwork the engines or the boat.”

Mercury Marine’s Dan Balogh credits smart sensors and simplified displays for improving autopilot. Boaters can dial in subtle changes to continually improve their on-water experience, he said.

“The proliferation of those smart sensors, that are cost-effective, have made autopilots better, made various systems around the boat better and really enabled a lot of very interesting things,” Balogh said.

If a boat’s autopilot was purchased around the time of the Y2K scare, it’s a good candidate for an upgrade or replacement. Many manufacturers offer adapter kits and software upgrades, allowing consumers to use existing wiring to connect display units and sensors, provided it is NMEA 2000 compatible, to allow the marine electronics to communicate.

If consumers are planning to retrofit an existing system, manufacturers agree it’s best to use the same brand; otherwise, there could be problems with the interface. Even with an upgrade, the autopilot may not have the full functionality a newer autopilot would have.

While a boater can purchase a new autopilot from the local marine store and do the work himself, Dunn said the consumer should at the very least consult with a professional. For new installations Garmin offers broader warranty coverage if the customer uses a Garmin- or NMMA-certified installer.

“We give you a better warranty because we know it’s done correctly,” Dunn said. “If customers feel they can do it, however, they can certainly buy it and do it themselves.”

Expect to pay 20 percent or more of the autopilot purchase price for a professional installation, which could take a day or more. With autopilots selling for $1,000 to $5,000, a professional install is a small cost in overall boat ownership.

Navico Marine Electronics, which includes Lowrance, Simrad and B&G brands, offers a $999 Outboard Pilot package for smaller boats to make either a Simrad or Lowrance multifunction display autopilot capable.

Owners who plan to go the do-it-yourself route must know what steering system their boat has. Autopilot manufacturers offer packages for cable and hydraulic steering systems, and a fly-by-wire system may be as simple as a software upgrade.

“As long as you know the volume of your steering system — and, if it’s hydraulic, the volume of fluid in the rams — you can go into a [marine retailer] or a technical dealer and they’ll be able to specify a system for you,” said Mark Harnett, autopilot project manager for Navico.

Harnett noted that entry-level Outboard Pilot isn’t for high-speed boats or rough seas, and owners will need a more durable (and expensive) autopilot system for offshore.

Newer autopilots give the captain options to make the journey to a far-flung spot a little more comfortable. Modern technology provides options that autopilot manufacturers could have only dreamed about years ago.

Furuno USA offers a Precision and Economy mode in its NavPilot, which allows for a cross-track error of six to 50 feet. Running in Economy mode increases the longevity of the steering system, because it doesn’t work the steering system and rudder as hard, Kunz said.

“Some of these guys want to use their autopilot for really precision waypoint navigation in tight waters, and we don’t recommend that but can’t stop people from doing it,” Kunz said.

Furuno will release a Bluetooth remote controller with a built-in range sensor, so the captain can point and press a button, and the autopilot will follow the course.

Technology has allowed autopilot manufacturers to add helpful features. Garmin offers Shadow Drive technology, which allows the captain to take the helm to steer around an object and autopilot will re-engage the course. The company also sells a smartwatch that can control the autopilot, and the feature can be accessed through an app.

Mercury Marine offers a similar feature in its joystick-equipped boats and has a fishing feature that can hold a boat at an angle to keep lines from getting tangled. Navico offers low-speed and high-speed steering setup in autopilot, to appeal to the fishing crowd.

One feature that won’t likely be coming soon to the recreational boat market is realtime weather data being fed into autopilot, even though consumers want it.

“There’s a lot of liability in that,” Dunn said. “You’re assuming that the weather data is correct, you’re assuming that the weather antenna is working properly. Just a lot of things we have to work with other companies on. I don’t think anybody is to that point yet in the recreational market.”

To see the future of autopilot, it pays to look at the military and the automotive industry. The U.S. Navy is investing heavily in autonomous boats for reconnaissance, cargo delivery and homeland protection. That technology will make its way into the recreational marine market, where consumers could one day see self-docking boats and move autonomously to a location. Rolls-Royce in June demonstrated the first remotely operated commercial vessel in Denmark. The ship undocked and completed a 360-degree turn before docking again.

Imagine this scenario: A boat owner sends his boat down to Cabo on its own, meets the boat down there, cruises for the winter and sends the boat back to Seattle on its own for the summer season. Kunz sees that as a real possibility.

Kunz sees the marine industry adapting self-driving car technology and using a combination of ultrasonic and radar-based multiport sensors around a boat for automatic docking.

“A lot of people that have money for boats have very little time to actually go out and learn how to use them effectively or really master them,” Kunz said. “How can the electronics help them?”

Consumers will likely see autopilot technology move into mass market boats as a standard feature thanks to lowercost LED screens and sensors. Mercury Marine’s Balogh said it’s important that the technology is easy to use and enhances the boat owner’s experience.

“There are so many things that people resist because it’s not really understood, but when you realize it’s there to assist the person and not replace the person, I think there is a much different regard for the technology,” Balogh said. “I’ve never seen technology at the dock making fun of me trying to back my trailer down the ramp.” Whether it’s right or wrong, the marine industry has to meet the expectations set by the automotive industry.

“The customer base is always asking for more and with all the home automation, car automation, customers want to see that in their boat too,” Dunn said. “That’s our challenge, to try and bring those expectations to your boating lifestyle.”

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