Should one choose to, they can purchase a boat with a design virtually unchanged from its predecessors of centuries past. But those with a few hundred thousand dollars of disposable income can opt for a yacht with impressive technological perks.
In high-end cruising yachts like those at this week’s Seattle Boat Show, and like those docked outside palatial Lake Washington homes, heating systems keep passengers warm out on the Salish Sea. Watermakers make seawater potable using the same desalination technology employed by Saudi Arabia and San Diego to quench desert thirst. On-board antennas make sure one can watch their favorite shows via satellite TV, and cellphone amplifiers claim to boost cell signals up to 70 miles offshore. Fish finders pinpoint the location of a fresh meal.
Life aboard a yacht isn’t uncomfortable, but one modern convenience is lacking. “Everyone asks about Internet,” said Kyle Holloway, a sales associate for yacht outfitter S3 Maritime. “And technology is finally good enough that we have clients who can stay on the water for two weeks and still conduct business.”
But it isn’t easy or cheap. Boat mavens can expect to pay $10,000 to $15,000 for a broadband antenna that works at our northern latitudes, and the best satellite data providers can offer blazing-fast speeds of … 500 kilobits per second.
Yacht networks have been left in the dial-up ages for a couple reasons. The first is a lack of demand. Twenty-six percent of Washington households own a boat, but the vast majority of those aren’t in need of speedy connections for multiweek boating trips. Furthermore, technological adaptation is slower in an industry where the stakes are higher — a malfunctioning system could run a yacht aground.
This means boat technology advances more quickly in other areas. For example, today’s chart plotters — the computer that displays the boat’s position — are now multifaceted devices. About the size of a Tesla dash computer, chart plotters have become centralized information centers with nautical charts, fish finders, and command centers for systems wired together via Ethernet.
On the navigation front, sophisticated autopilot systems have the capability to avoid both dangerous topography and oncoming tanker ships or ferries while maintaining a straight (read: efficient) course, setting an example for the in-development autonomous cars.
“These autopilot systems are top-notch,” Holloway said. “You can draw a line on your chart plotter, and they’ll follow it exactly.”
As electronic systems become more compatible, boaters want the ability to operate and monitor them with tablets and cellphones. Rose Point Navigation Systems, a Redmond-based maker of navigation systems that run on PCs, introduced the Nemo Gateway, a device that transmits navigation data to smartphones or tablets.
“Our customers want the same data that they’re getting (on the chart plotter) on their other devices, so I can take (the tablet) to the galley to make lunch, or to my stateroom,” said Rose Point director Garth Hitchens. The technology also lets a tablet function as the primary chart plotter in outside helms that might lack sufficient space for a permanent display.
Other consumer-tech devices are making their way into the maritime industry. Sport-boat maker Malibu, for example, offers a bracelet that lets wake surfers manipulate fins on the boat that change the shape of the wake, and many boats feature Bluetooth connectivity, so boaters can stream their favorite Spotify playlists.
Short-range technologies like these are easier to implement, but another Redmond company, Kymeta, says its flat-panel antennas will eventually enable fast, long-range data transfer that currently beguiles boaters who venture miles offshore.
Current satellite antennas, like a television dish, must point at the satellite to receive a transmission, a major challenge on a moving boat. Kymeta’s antenna, however, is flat and scans for satellites electronically. This reduces cost, and allows the antenna to be easily installed or built into the boat.
Kymeta’s antenna is also optimized to catch signals from satellites in low-Earth orbit, which navigation companies and tech firms like Google and SpaceX are sending to space to create a global broadband network.
Mechanical antennas work well with geostationary satellites that maintain the same position in the sky. But with low-Earth orbit constellations, “there are going to hundreds of satellites that pass overhead in just a few minutes,” said Hakan Olsson, Kymeta’s VP of maritime. “For that, you need a quick, easy-to-use, electronic antenna like ours because you can’t rely on mechanical adjustments.”
Kymeta’s best known for its inroads in the auto realm. Shortly after Kymeta closed a $62 million funding round, Toyota unveiled a prototype car with a Kymeta antenna capable of 50 megabit-per-second download speeds. Olsson said Kymeta will pursue aviation, automotive, and maritime partners simultaneously, but he expects to see marine antennas hit the market first, around 2017. Until then, it’s dial-up speeds for all on the water.