Navico B

The Wish List: Auto-Updating Charts

Auto-Updating Charts — It’s time recreational mariners had broad access to, and used, auto-updating technology to ensure that the charts they use in their chartplotters are continuously up-to-date.  Offered by a single company to-date, it’s an important safety enhancement and one within the reach of current technology.  This is the second in our occasional series called “The Wish List.”

Are Your Charts Missing the Key Piece of Information?  -- Illustration

Are Your Charts Missing the Key Piece of Information? -- Illustration

I have two chartplotters on my boat — a Furuno NavNet unit that uses C-Map/NT charts (on a proprietary chip format), and a Northstar 6000i that uses Navionics charts on a compact flash card.  Once a year I have the opportunity to update these charts/chips, at a fairly modest cost; well, one more modest than the other.  What has always bugged me is that there is no practical way to update the charts in the interim period.  Why can’t I simply connect my chartplotters to the Internet — or bring the chips home and connect them to my PC — and get updates as soon as they are available via the NGA or Local Notices to Mariners (LNMs)?

Interestingly, this type of chart-updating is widely available to military and commercial mariners.  There is, however, only one company (to my knowledge) that offers this capability to recreational boaters and that is the Jeppesen Marine MAX Pro brand of cartography.  More on that later.

The Problem

Unless you’re a MAX Pro customer, you can update your charts at most twice per year, and usually just once.  Not only that, but by the time you get the updated chart cartridge it’s guaranteed to be out-of-date; since LNMs update these areas weekly. 

Commercial operators, who are required to have updated charts onboard at all times, use auto-updating services to stay current.  For example, in the U.S., the Jeppesena NavData update service ensures commercial captains always have the latest charts.  There is a little bit of irony, though, in the notion that a freighter plodding its way across vast, featureless stretches of ocean knows exactly where the buoys in every port are, while the recreational boater, who is navigating the coastal waters that are strewn with aids and hazards to navigation has only outdated information available to him.  Who actually has the greater need?  Even when the freighter gets to port, the odds are it’s going to get a harbor pilot aboard with years of experience and real-time local information to get him safely to the pier.

Of course, when I say the recreational captain doesn’t have updated chart info “available,” I’m really saying that he or she hasn’t taken the time to get it.  Local Notices to Mariners and updates from the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency are issued weekly and every boater can manually update paper charts — if they have them, that is.  U.S. Coast Guard crews have told me they rarely find appropriate charts aboard boats that are randomly inspected.

There are plenty of examples of auto-updating technology out there.  Your personal computer is probably the most obvious one.  If you use a Microsoft operating system, your PC probably automatically installs the latest security and operational fixes while you sleep.  Unless you’ve disabled the feature, you never have to worry about having the latest patches in your system.  Many applications on your computer can also update themselves.  All that’s required is a connection to the Internet.  And more and more boats have some kind of Internet capabilities these days.  High-end passagemakers often have satellite access to the Internet (remember, good update technology only sends relatively small-size files that have the changes, not the whole chart or program).  Many smaller cruisers have Wi-Fi antennae aboard and can make use of that connection any time they’re near a port or marina.

It is a relatively simple task to add Internet capability to most of today’s chartplotters.  Most have the guts of a PC-like computer anyway, so adding Internet connectivity shouldn’t be that big of a challenge.  And with more and more of these devices networked, often via Ethernet protocols, the ability to update ALL of your devices this way, whether for firmware or software enhancements, should be possible.

MAX Pro Charts

I mentioned earlier that Jeppesen Marine, under the brand C-MAP by Jeppesen, offers its MAX Pro Cartography product for use in both the Northstar 8000i and Simrad GB40 chartplotters (the latter a black-box system).  It is also available to run on the latest versions of the Nobeltec VNS and Admiral nav software packages, known as VNS MAX Pro and Admiral MAX Pro, respectively.  If you’re running Nobeltec software now, you should be upgrading your software to the MAX Pro versions because you’re already on a PC of some kind and that nearly always means Internet access.  Most MAX Pro users will plug in a USB thumb drive to their nav unit, tell the unit to update the licensed charts; and then the unit will place the update request on the USB drive.  Plug that into an Internet-connected device and it will automatically go get the updates, which can then be downloaded onto the nav computer.  A typical update might take from 30-60 seconds; only the update information is being retrieved, not the whole chart.

New Navico Broadband Radar Overlay on MAX Pro Chart -- Image Courtesy of Jeppesen Marine

New Navico Broadband Radar Overlay on MAX Pro Chart -- Image Courtesy of Jeppesen Marine

We will have a follow-on piece in the near future on the Nobeltec software with some demonstrations and discussions of how to do the chart updating, so stay tuned.

Another option for PC-navigation users is with the products of Rose Point Navigation.  Its ECS (used more by commerical mariners) and Coastal Explorer programs feature easy updating of the charts, including all the raster and vector charts available from NOAA.  Watch for our review of the Rose Point programs in the upcoming series on PC-based navigation.

In the meantime, if you use Navionics or Garmin-brand cartography, get after them to speed this capability to market.  I hear whispers that Garmin may be close to such a capability but the company won’t specifically confirm it.  Auto-updating of your navigation charts is an important safety enhancement and a technology already demonstrated to be ready for prime time.

Copyright © 2009 OceanLines LLC

Posted by Tom in Technology