NMEA and Marine Electronics Surge

Take control of your helm and see the electronics come alive. Those with newer boats may even have started your engines, turned on the A/C and maybe spooled up your Seakeeper—all from your phone before you got to the boat. Your dashboard may have a display from one company, a sound system from another, radar, bow thruster and lights—all from various manufacturers. How does all of the technology work together? And when it doesn’t, what went wrong and who can straighten it out?

National Marine Electronics association National Marine Electronics association. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As the sophistication of marine electronics has surged over the past decades, consumers have been able to enjoy the benefits and convenience, due to the successful collaboration of the electronics manufacturers, electrical system installers, boat and engine builders. That synergy did not happen by accident or overnight, but through the efforts of the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) which started in 1957.

History, Standards, Protocols and Training

In the beginning the NMEA was a coalition of marine dealers and installers who gathered to protect their specialized trade as more boat builders took on their own electrical installations. In recognizing their training and expertise, these professionals hoped that more consumers would want to have their electronics installed by experts and also wanted boat builders and dealers to subcontract the electrical work.

This organization grew in size and scope, becoming an authoritative trade association, recognizing that it needed a set of standards and protocols to protect not just the installers, but everyone involved, to ensure that systems worked together. Anyone who has had a marine electrical problem may have witnessed some “finger pointing” among various competitive vendors, but the NMEA works to remove that element by having the electronics manufacturers, installers and boat builders work collaboratively to identify and solve issues—all made easier because of the established standards and protocols.

NMEA Interface Standard

The process started with the NMEA Interface Standard which addressed one-way serial data transmission, where one device is “talking,” and others are “listening” such as an electrical compass communicating with an autopilot. These standards were created by a large group of industry experts working in volunteer committees towards the betterment of the entire industry and its consumers, not just the individual brands. This standard is continually updated as a copyrighted document.

According to Aaron Porter, Editor of Professional Boat Builder Magazine, a longtime, respected trade journal that works with the NMEA at its IBEX trade show and circulates news about the standards, “The NMEA stepped up and created a common language, at a vital and pivotal moment, to give clarity to systems developers and ensure that things would work. It also leveled the playing field as new products were developed.” Porter also notes that the NMEA is responsive to manufacturers, boat builders and service yards, who are in a high stakes business, being “the honest broker of updating and troubleshooting for the industry.” Problems are expensive and dangerous and as the sophistication of electronics increases, the structure of the system is important to all. “Someone had to be the adult in the room, to take the heat and work through problems to come up with solutions,” Porter adds.

0400 Installation Standard

Congruent with the standards for manufacturers was the 0400 Installation Standard, which defines for all installers, technicians, surveyors, and even DIY consumers, the “competent installation practices for vessels from 20-150’ and up to 300 gross tons.”

As more and more electronic devices came to market and engines became more complex, the protocols were updated and are supported by several training programs available to members and non-members. The basic Marine Electronics Installer, (MEI) or advanced version, AMEI, is done online. The National Marine Electronics Technician (NMET) is a “steppingstone” to the Commercial Marine Electronics Technician (CMET), which adds an FCC licensing component that is separate from NMEA but can be administered through the association’s proctor testing program.

Again, as the industry’s complexity grew, so did the NMEA, which now has a small staff under president Mark Reedenauer, a Board of Directors and a number of volunteer committees overseeing, writing and updating the protocols. Members pay annual dues that provide opportunities for free training for staff, listing of products on the NMEA website, a Marine Electronics Journal, the industry’s Buyers Guide, available in print and digitally, and an annual convention strictly for the trade, where Product of Excellent Awards are given. The NMEABoater.com website is also available to consumers, providing NMEA products, dealers and how-to videos provided by member companies.

NMEA 2000 Standard and Certification

Next came the NMEA 2000 Standard and Certification which is the benchmark of all electronic products, setting the “requirements of a serial data communications network to inter-connect marine electronic equipment on vessels.” Manufacturers follow the protocols to ensure that equipment can share data, including commands and status with other compatible equipment over a single channel, based on CAN (Controller Area Network) then those products must be certified to be up to NMEA 2000 standards.

For manufacturers of everything from displays, satellites, VHF, Artificial Identification Systems (AIS), battery controllers, cameras, engines, generators, A/C systems—everything you find on your boat’s dash and engine rooms—these standards provide a common denominator for communication—except for high bandwidth—that is still in process with the upcoming OneNet Ethernet Standard.

The Industry Players Speak

The NMEA 2000 Standard and installation training is paramount, for as Ron Muller of Electronics Unlimited states, “A shoddy installation or improper interface—which are more and more complicated—will cause serious problems.” Muller sees the value of the standards and the training for boat builders’ staff and notes that it costs builders money to train their people, which he describes as “an open book test.” He portends the extra credentials of people in his position who went to school to get electronics degrees, coupled with years of on the job training as the “problem solvers” that boat builders hire to fix issues—especially when manufacturer field representative are not available.

However, some manufactures employ teams that go to boat builders to help with installations. These relationships certainly make builders favor these equipment companies as the teams come with appropriate certifications, then match the equipment to what the builder wants to accomplish. As Andrew Bazan, who handles Mercury’s Product Integration and serves on the NMEA standards committee comments, “Whether it be tank level sensors, navigation interface, ice makers, joy sticks or steering controls, Mercury will work with the [equipment] vendors to iron out any issues. It may be Raymarine, Simrad, Furuno, Garmin, Navico or Hummingbird—how does the touchscreen display tell the autopilot what to do? Through NMEA, we do our level best to put our interests to the side and think of all companies in a collaborative effort.”

Bazan also mentions that certain systems work better together than others—a caveat when choosing compatible vendors–and adds that stereo and lighting systems are now another interface to consider. SeaVee’s Ariel Pared echoes these more recent developments. “Perks have become important and audio has become radical where people are spending $6-9,000 on an entertainment system—with lighting options and changing colors, controlled from cell phones. It’s a challenge to deliver the experience to the customer. You may see your music on the screen, great—but if you want to control the volume and change songs—that is more complex,” he states. SeaVee relies on Electronics Unlimited to handle installations to “make sure everything is playing well together.” He notes that when something goes wrong, if there is not a good interface, there are often firmware updates to fix the glitches, and audio companies now need to put in the time and effort to become NMEA certified. “The more we standardize the protocols, the better,” Pared notes, “Then we get a user interface that works across the board. It is a full-time job keeping on top of it!”

Modern Sophisticated “Smart Boats”

Raymarine’s marketing manager, Jim McGowan, says, “Today’s boats are more sophisticated than ever before, and it is challenging in even the best of conditions. Add a little trauma and the pucker factor increases!” He notes that in “the old days,” each company had its own controls. “The dash would be a cluttered mish-mash,” McGowan says, “Now we are on a common digital network and everything can talk across the same network wire and can be seen in a super bright display.” Raymarine’s FLIR ClearCruise AR won a 2019 NMEA Technology Award that overlays a camera feed with Augmented Reality, showing other boats, GPS signals, buoys and AIS transponders and can be used in glare, fog or at night. The device is an example of so-called “smart boat” technology that incorporated a number of NMEA standards. Those complexities add to the need for continuous expansion of standards, including those now being developed for lighting and theft protection.

Brian Kane, CTO of GOST and Vice Chair of the NMEA Board notes that the next version of the 0400 Installation Standard will include updates on security system installation. He credits the NMEA, “the voice of the industry” and its standards for the success of the complex aspects of the GOST system, that includes video, tracking, acoustical barriers, strobe lights and even fog. “Our systems are the central nerve of the boat and are only as powerful as the installation. Security is very intimate to our customers as we are protecting their families and friends and we cannot afford to have a problem because some sensor wasn’t installed properly,” he states. Kane says GOST works with dealers to right any problem and encourages builders to get involved and get training to learn the standards or get factory installation. “Employees need to take ownership and pride in their work,” he adds.

Another major installer, American Marine Electronics (AME), under the parent company, Viking Yachts, also focuses on training. Todd Tally, general manager, reports that as one of the largest electronic dealers in the country, AME puts emphasis on training to give the recreational user the best experience—not frustration. Because the company does refits of all brands, as well as production work for Viking, it has expertise with all the varied technology brands and can “juggle” to customize the clients’ needs and wants.

Where a production boat builder may offer only one engine or electronic brand to simplify and lower installation costs, as with Viking’s new Valhalla center console, when building a larger, more expensive boat, a customer may want to mix electronics system brands for various functions. Finding the right components and the right interfaces is more complex. AME also does orientations with clients, taking them out on their boats to teach them how to use the systems.

Tally urges new boat owners to take the time and attention, recommending two to three days, to sea trial and learn the electronics—then the engine systems as well—before taking friends and family out on a trip. “They are making a big investment, they should allocate the proper amount of time to get educated on their purchase,” he states.

So the next time you turn on all the switches on your boat and watch the digital display and systems come to life, remember that the electronic manufacturers, engine builders, dealers and installers dedicated a great deal of time and energy, working with the NMEA to meet established standards and protocols. They worked to find the interface to put a smile on your face!

Note: The NMEA will host virtual, online Basic and Advanced Marine Electronics Installer (MEI) training classes June 2, 3 and 4, using a college-style, 6 hours/day program designed for beginners or technical boaters, evaluated through a 50 question proctor test. The cost is $450 for NMEA members and $650 for non-members. See the above link for more information and enrollment.

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