Technology Integration At The Helm
The MFD As The Heart And Brain Of Your Connected System
Published: Tuesday, May 26, 2020
By: Zuzana Prochazka
Today’s multifunction display (MFD) isn’t your daddy’s chartplotter. What used to be a simple electronic chart with a GPS lat/lon position has morphed into a comprehensive window into and outside your vessel. Integration falls into three buckets: tying together a comprehensive range of components, providing vessel monitoring and control, and simplified connectivity via networking. Let’s check out how MFDs navigate, integrate, simplify, and beautify your dash.
The definition of onboard integration expands every day. Marine electronics are now bringing together charting, radar, wind/depth/speed instruments, autopilot, entertainment, video input/output, engine data, digital switching, and more. All the big four MFD manufacturers including Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno and Navico (which owns Simrad, Lowrance, and B&G) have developed comprehensive solutions to onboard integration.
An MFD is only as good as the peripherals that plug into it so you’ll want a range of networked systems. For example, an MFD with HDMI digital video input/output can connect to and display information from DVD players, satellite TV, and a variety of cameras including thermal imaging night vision scopes and visual engine room monitoring. That means you can navigate, watch a movie, keep an eye on your engine or make way even in fog or darkness, all by watching your MFD. (Not simultaneously if you’re watching a movie, of course.)
Vessel Monitoring & Control
MFDs allow you to bring together information from within the vessel with networked digital switching. Most MFDs can integrate systems like CZone, which displays information from various pumps, lights, fans, engine data, and alarms on both AC and DC systems. Not only do you see what’s running and its amp draw, you can turn components on or off right from your MFD to manage power consumption.
Some of the systems that can be tied together for monitoring and control include joystick docking, autopilot, trim tabs, dynamic positioning systems, gyro stabilizers, and engine diagnostics. That’s a lot of information and control at your fingertips.
All MFD brands also offer apps and connectivity to tablets and smartphones that let you monitor and control some functions from your iOS or Android devices. You can turn up your stereo, view a chart, or change screens from anywhere, which makes your system ultimately portable. Autopilot control hasn’t been included in smart device applications for safety reasons—you don’t want your kids to hijack control of your boat at 25 knots via their cell phone.
Raymarine’s popular Axiom family of MFDs supports an incredible and ever-expanding range of Raymarine accessories including Quantum radar, CHIRP Sonar, FLIR thermal cameras, audio integration, instruments, cameras, and Evolution autopilot, as well as partner technologies from Bouyweather, CZone, Lumishore, Mazu, Netflix, Spotify, PredictWind, Seakeeper, Shadow-Caster, Theyr, Victron and more. Additionally, standard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity allows connection to the latest Raymarine apps for tablets and smartphones. Here, a Raymarine Axiom XL MFD (above) shows data from Raymarine’s DockSense Alert system as the vessel backs into its slip.
Connectivity, Upgradability & Troubleshooting
In order for all this wonder to happen, MFDs must talk to the components in the system and each manufacturer has a slightly different protocol. Proprietary systems are designed to promote plug-and-play simplicity when all components are purchased from one brand. This is also encouraged because you then spend your money all in one place and it’s easier for a dealer to integrate.
However, onboard networking can also be done via common protocols to allow most components from disparate manufacturers to talk to each other. Successful connectivity is usually achieved via NMEA 2000, Ethernet, Bluetooth and WiFi. It may take a bit of expertise to make everything communicate so unless you’re a savvy computer guru, you may want to leave the big issues to a dealer or professional installer.
Connectivity also helps refresh, expand, or troubleshoot systems. You can download the latest charting software, unlock added functionality via software keys, or upload engine diagnostics (usually done through marina WiFi). That means your boating experience is always fresh and your engine data can be analyzed by the manufacturer or dealer remotely, which can make troubleshooting faster and cheaper. (Total integration may not be available between new electronics and older engine models.)
The real fun of what is available today lies in increased functionality and ease-of-use. The user interface has come a long way with familiar functions you’re already used to from daily life with smartphones and tablets. Most displays are touchscreens with full touch capability including pinch-to-zoom. Additionally, colorful and completely intuitive icons make selecting functions such as radar, sonar, stereo or charting a no-brainer. Most electronics manufacturers offer fully customizable galleries of symbols you can use to speed up switching between screens and functions. However, when boats bounce in rough seas or outdoor consoles get wet or messy with fish muck, touchscreens may not be the answer so each MFD manufacturer also offers separate wired or wireless control keypads and rotary knobs.
Perhaps the greatest benefit is that MFDs combine a lot of functionality into one tidy package, thereby cleaning up the appearance of the helm. Gone are the days of multiple standalone screens for gauges, radar, and plotter which ate up dash real estate and added clutter.
The trend is also toward more screen and less bezel with manufacturers competing to make their displays larger and brighter with less peripheral plastic. Displays now also have lower profiles so they take up less room behind the dash panel and can mount flush for a sleeker look from the front.
No matter whose displays you prefer, most are waterproof to IPX5 or 6 standard from the front and IPX2 from the back which means you can mount these beauties both inside a pilothouse or up on the exposed flybridge for ultimate flexibility. In addition, these screens have become more efficient with a lower amp draw than the old energy hogs of the past.
Refits & Value
The big four MFD manufacturers have been playing leapfrog as one brings out more functionality, increased ease-of-use, or a higher resolution display and then the rest follow or add their own new twist. The truth is that most are similar in what they can do with a few fun differences. However, this makes pricing a tough comparison with apples-to-apples being just about impossible. In fact, apples to turnips would be more like it and that’s also by design so you’re encouraged to stick with one brand.
Some manufacturers offer pre-set packages and that’s a great way to save. For a refit, ask about tiered pricing with good, better, best solutions and don’t overbuy because all these systems already do a thousand more things than you will use on a daily basis. In a refit, account for the cost of installation and all the peripherals like a radar array, AIS, stereos, cameras, transducers, and cabling. Buying all the components from one brand may save a bit.
A Good Time for Change
The pace of innovation is exciting albeit a bit intimidating and you can go broke chasing the technology demon. But if you’re contemplating an upgrade, the benefits of integration into the new uber-smart MFDs may wow you enough to make you reach for your wallet and bring the future to your helm today.
About the Author
Zuzana is a freelance writer and photographer with regular contributions to over 18 sailing and power boating publications. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana is the founder of a flotilla charter company called Zescapes that takes guests adventure sailing at destinations around the world.
Zuzana serves as an international presenter on charter destinations, safety issues, and technical topics, and she's the Chair of the New Product Awards committee for innovative boats and new gear. She is a member of the American Society of Authors and Journalists and a board member of Boating Writers International.
This article first appeared in the Launch Issue (May/Jun) 2020 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.