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Declutter your multifunction display

Certified Marine Electronics Technician and dealer John Barry writes a regular column in Marine Electronics Journal called Tech Talk. In this article he advises readers about the pitfalls of data overload at the helm. Sure, you can pull up and display information on just about anything going on from bow light to stern light, but therein lies the potential problem—clutter and distraction. Here’s John’s advice: 

Today’s marine electronics keep adding more capabilities and this means more data. Latitude and longitude, course and speed, date and time—these are the basic data pieces of a GPS sensor. We also have depth, speed through water and water temperature coming from our smart transducer. Various sensors are used to measure conditions of various things. A marine engine has tachometer, oil pressure, cooling fluid temperature and voltage as a base set of data, but may also include oil temperature, boost pressure, water pressure, etc. 
Modern chartplotters can display massive amounts of data. Overlaying radar on a chart display is a very useful display. Layering on satellite images and bathymetric data is also possible. Data boxes with sensor information like depth or ETA—Estimated Time of Arrival—etc. can be placed at various places on the screen. AIS (Automatic Identification System) targets and AtoNs (Aids to Navigation), aerial photos and weather information can be added. With all this information, the screen can be overwhelming. Navigation tools are just the beginning of what can be shown on a modern MFD—multifunction display. Streaming music, trim tabs, switching, alarms, tank levels and so on really add to the clutter. Too much information is a growing problem with marine navigation systems. 

So what data should be shown? A simple, uncluttered display is always best, but relevant data must be shown. When entering a harbor, water depth is critical. When running a sailboat race, wind angle and speed thru water are essential. Depending on conditions, radar and AIS are often needed. A skilled captain knows what data he needs for different operations and varying conditions. By carefully planning data distribution and training operators how to configure their displays, we improve safety and enjoyment. 

Boaters can get information overload. When confronted with too much information, people tend to focus on a single data point. An operator may pick the digital depth readout on the screen while ignoring other relevant data like AIS. A cluttered screen with data and graphical information everywhere is actually more dangerous than a simple relevant display. Much of this is operator preference and today’s systems allow customized displays, enabling operators to configure their devices for an array of information. 

Be selective
The options are many for data display. Data repeater displays are a great solution with large digital readouts. Having digital depth selected on a repeater and available at a glance is often desirable. I have connected countless motors to read out engine data on the chartplotter—despite gauges that already show this same information at the same location. This type of redundant hookup just clutters the screen. 

Some data belongs on the primary navigation device and some does not. In commercial vessels, purpose-built computers are used for navigation, operations and administration. The primary navigation computer is never used for administrative purposes. For large ships that must meet strict equipment carriage requirements, sophisticated electronic displays called ECDIS—for Electronic Chart Display and Information System—are used and the displays available are strictly limited by regulation. For yachts, there are lessons to be learned from this. 

I am a believer in the KISS theory, but keeping it simple is easier said than done these days. With the growth of available information, one solution is to simply limit the data available on the backbone (which carries electronic data from various devices, including engines and onboard systems). By keeping house systems off the primary navigation backbone, we prevent the operator from doing things like playing with the entertainment system during navigation. A separate network, be it NMEA 2000, WiFi or even Bluetooth, to manage entertainment and machinery is best. 

Having multiple NMEA 2000 backbones for navigation, propulsion and house systems makes sense to me. The NMEA 2000 interfacing standard allows for 50 devices representing 252 virtual addresses to be networked together. Putting switching, entertainment and propulsion data on one backbone can cause a cluttered display of irrelevant information and should be avoided. 

Safe passage is the primary purpose of navigation electronics. Underway in the fog, we want radar; docking we want rudder angle. Getting the right data on the screen at the right time improves situational awareness and safety. Enjoyment of the boating experience is important and only possible if safety is addressed first. 

About the author
John Barry is a Certified Marine Electronics Installer (CMET) who owns and operates Technical Marine Support, Inc., a full-service dealership in Pleasant Prairie, WI. He instructs both the Marine Electronics Installer and NMEA 2000 Network courses for the National Marine Electronics Association.

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