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A primer on network gateways

Now that onboard networks with all of their interfaced equipment are a common discussion topic among many boaters we thought some basic information about one of the key components might be helpful. That component is gateways---and they're often necessary to make everything play nicely on the network. Below is an excerpt from an Marine Electronics Journal article that ran late last year.

By Ron Ballanti

We probably all know a boater like Ed. He’s out most weekends during the season, trolling for stripers along the coast, or maybe chasing tuna around the offshore canyons.  He’s mighty partial to the late-90s vintage chartplotter he’s had on the boat since he first bought her. After all, it’s familiar, has a few hundred secret fishing hotspots saved in the memory and he knows how to perform all the navigation functions he needs without even thinking. So, when Ed’s trusty old autopilot finally steers its way to the happy hunting grounds and it’s time to replace it with a new one, he may find himself with a little challenge to overcome.

To optimize the performance and functionality of this set up — say to link the autopilot and chartplotter together to allow push-and-go steering to a waypoint — Ed needs to have the chartplotter’s NMEA 0183 “language” converted to accept the NMEA 2000® standard.  This is where a range of gateway technologies from companies such as Actisense, Maretron, Airmar, Digital Yacht and others comes into play.  In the most simplistic sense, you can think of the various NMEA gateway technologies as translators—developed to allow different marine electronics products to connect, talk with one another and contribute to the network. 


What’s in a name?

The variety of products that fall into this category is extensive, and seemingly growing everyday with the need to capture, share and make use of all the digital information flying around today’s boats.  It’s not just about effectively networking MFDs (Multi-Function Displays), autopilots, sonar, DSC (Digital Selective Calling) VHFs and other marine electronics to optimize performance, but bringing in NMEA 2000 data from weather sensors, satellite compasses, engines, transmissions, electronic throttles, gen sets, trim indicators, fuel tanks, holding tanks and much more, so this information can be shared, viewed and controlled from different systems connected via the boat’s NMEA 2000 digital backbone (below at left). With so much information available and so many ways it could be used by a person operating a complex machine like today’s modern boat, gateway products were developed to help link it all together, and manage and make use of the flow of available information.

“Gateways are the interface between standards,” said Phil Whitehurst, Chief Executive Officer of UK-based Actisense, manufacturer of a wide array of gateway products, including the widely used NGW-1 NMEA 2000 Gateway. “They can exchange one type of data for another, such as NMEA 0183 to NMEA 2000, or between other types of systems such as J1939 [engine data] to NMEA 2000 bridges.”

“The term gateway is generally used in the NMEA 2000 community to distinguish a product that translates or ‘gateways’ one protocol to another,” explained Richard Gauer, President of Maretron, manufacturer of vessel monitoring and control systems.  “For example, we offer a USB/NMEA 2000 gateway—the USB100—that translates NMEA 2000 messages to NMEA 0183 sentences to ‘gateway’ an NMEA 2000 network to a PC running navigation software and expecting NMEA 0183 sentences. Another example is our SMS100 module, which ‘gateways’ the NMEA 2000 network to the cellular phone network, so text messages relative to the NMEA 2000 network can be sent to mobile phones.”

“It’s important to think about whether the gateway you need is one-directional or bi-directional,” said Peter Braffitt, General Manager of Gemeco Marine Accessories, LLC, a leading marine electronics distributor that handles many of these gateway products and helps dealers and customers alike with technical issues.  “For example, you might want to convert engine data to NMEA 2000 to access that information, but the engine company blocks the NMEA 2000 data from going to the engine for safety. Companies like Garmin, Furuno, Actisense and others make one- or two-way converters based on application. Some gateway manufacturers allow the user to set filters on bi-directional gateways to alleviate such issues,” added Braffitt.


Dealing with technicalities

With a NMEA 2000 digital “backbone” laid into a vessel, the idea is that any piece of navigation equipment, electronics or a growing array of digital sensors placed around the boat can share their data over the network. The same is true with key systems on the vessel such as engines, generators, throttles, transmissions and the like.  Making all these different systems connect and communicate in an effective way requires a skilled and trained installer, and sometimes the need for one of the gateway products to get them “talking” together.

Gauer stressed the need for proper network installation first and foremost. “There are many issues associated with NMEA 2000 networks, and they are generally associated with installation of the network with no regards to the NMEA 2000 network rules.” He added that Maretron offers a free tool (N2K Builder) for designing networks, and if installed accordingly, the networks generally work flawlessly. “There are compatibility issues between manufacturers, but if the network is sound, these issues can be diagnosed using the proper tools,” said Gauer.  He also recommended that consumers ask their technician if he will be using a network design tool, and if so, to leave the documentation onboard for the next guy diagnosing the system or adding new components.

Working through issues

We’ve established that gateways can play an important role in creating functional NMEA 2000 networks---particularly when there is a need to integrate different onboard systems and utilize NMEA 2000 data created by marine electronics and other sensors for a variety of purposes. There is much more to it, however, than plugging gateways in between product A and sensor B and expecting everything to work.  Much like computer networks on land, getting hardware and software connected, dialed in and working properly often takes some research, time and troubleshooting.

“Installing NMEA gateways or ‘translators’ doesn’t always go by the script,” said Ken Englert, owner of Marina del Rey, California-based Maritime Communications. “Neither engine builders, electronics manufacturers or other companies can anticipate all the connection possibilities and potential problems that might crop up. The fact is, even if all the elements you’re trying to network together are speaking the same language, they each can have their own dialect. Or there can be a range of possible technical issues, such as baud rate.”  Experience has taught installers that these subtle differences can lead to problems, and that these problems can sometimes be a challenge to figure out and overcome.

Englert further related that through experience and trial and error, these issues usually get worked out over time. “For their part, manufacturers have been very helpful in working through these problems,” added Englert.

Bringing engine data to MFDs and other displays is one of the biggest advantages of NMEA 2000, providing important information front-and-center for boaters at the helm. It is also one of the key trouble areas, and one that Maritime Communications has relied heavily on gateway products from Maretron to tackle.  “Getting engine information onto displays can be full of trapdoors,” said Englert. “Talk with the engine company and the electronics manufacturer to see if this has and does work, or if it’s just in theory.”

About the author

Ron Ballanti has worked in the marine electronics and boating industry for more than 25 years, providing marketing services and contributing editorially to a variety of national magazines and websites. His company is Strike Zone Communications. Since 2000, he has won eight annual Boating Writers International writing contest awards in the Fishing and Gear/Electronics Test categories. 


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