NMEA2000 technology was borrowed from the non-marine industry (CAN bus) and adapted to the boating industry. Unfortunately, that has left it with some short comings which I will attempt to explain in this article. Also along the way, some manufacturer's have seen fit to produce products that don't fully comply with the nmea standard.
So this leads me to my first caution...
Because of these "private data packets", some vendors may purposely use private PGNs (those that only that manufacturer's equipment understands). So a certain device may only be able to be read that manufacturer's equipment, regardless of whether or not the device has a standard connector.
Also, many sensors must be programmed before use, and this usually requires a display unit of the same manufacturer to program them. However, once programmed - the sensor may be able to be detected by any other manufacturer's product. This incompatibility still exists to some degree, so be aware when mixing products from different manufacturers that you may run across a few problems.
Building a Network
NMEA-2000 initially provided for two network cabling schemes; called Mini and Micro. Maretron now offers a third scheme called Mid. So the first question to answer is which one do I use? While each cabling scheme is identical in their bus configuration, the major difference is the capacity each network will provide. They are:
But there are limitations to the network.
The cable distance between any two points (a point being an electronic product or terminator) must not exceed 250 meters (820 feet) for a system based on the Mini or Mid trunk cable or 100 meters (328 feet) for a system based on a Micro trunk cable
AND the cumulative drop line length is the sum of all drop lines, Mini, Mid or Micro cable in the cabling system; This sum cannot exceed 78 meters (256 feet) and no single device can be more than 6 meters (20 feet) from the trunk line.
This places limits for sail boats with masts greater than 20 feet. Effectively it means the main trunk of the Network has to go up the mast, and to cover instruments or sensors forward of the mast the main trunk has to do a big "U" back, or use a drop line no more than 20 feet. If one wants to put more than one sensor at the top of the mast, the wiring becomes more of a problem with probably the "T' junctions and terminator living outside the mast in the elements.
BUT in addition to this, excessive voltage drop can be an issue when using Micro cable, due to the small size of the power wires within the backbone. Especially on long cable runs you can have excessive voltage drop, even if the total power required by all of the devices is less than the LEN rating of the cable. To determine the voltage drop, an easy formula can be used: Voltage drop = LEN X Cable Length(in meters) X Cable Resistance(in ohms)/100
Clearly for sailboats the micro cable probably can't be used, but one could use a Micro network with a Mid backbone cable. Essentially the only difference is that the Mid cable uses 16 AWG power wires, where the Micro cable uses 22 AWG. Otherwise, all of the connectors and terminators are identical. This is the most cost-effective solution as Mid cables do not really cost much more than a Micro cable, and you can still use the less expensive Micro connectors and drop cables.
One important item that needs repeating is voltage drop. Attention must also be given to the feed wires. The wiring route from the battery to the NMEA22000 power tee should be minimized to reduce voltage loss. This is sometimes difficult as often, the power switch for the network logically belongs at the helm, however (especially with a center-feed network), the power tee may be located some distance from the helm. One solution is to install a relay near the power tap, which is switched at the helm. The relay would allow a remote switch at the helm to turn the network on or off with minimum voltage loss.
Now my second caution......
Now consider this. If there is a problem with the NMEA2000 back bone, every piece of gear on that network that is dependent on it, stops working. Everything, that comunicates with each other, becomes non effective.
- The GPS stops working, including the plotter
- The fluxgate compass doesn't work
- Engine instruments don't work
- AIS doesn't show anything
- the autpilot stops working because it doesn't get a heading from the compass
What we need to think about is what a network failure will do to us on a dark night in a tricky situation. We must have a backup plan. And because of the issues with trouble shooting these complex systems in remote places, it would be good to have a plan for continuing our cruise without all this interconnection potential problems. Here's some things that could help
- Have a plotter with a separately connected GPS sensor, or GPS with paper charts, available. Or consider an iPad with it's own charting system. We use it all the time now, to compare two separate chart systems. It has it's own GPS
- There is a separate AIS unit with its own screen and direct connection to its own GPS within sight of the helm. Some of the latest up market VHF have AIA receivers on the screen.
- There are backup hard wired, or mechanically connected, engine instruments.
- And don't forget a properly swung magnetic compass.
So when that comes about, are boats then going to run another cabling system around their boat to accommodate for the higher bandwidth of devices today, that NMEA2000 can't handle? It sort of defeats the purpose of running just one cable. NMEA2000 specification itself is proprietary and expensive. Ethernet is more of an open standard and open source and open protocols grow markets and create opportunities. NMEA2000 sharply illustrates the obverse of this point. It is tied tightly to a specific physical networking scheme, and has made the specification expensive and proprietary. And so in 2014, I look at NMEA2000 and see how atypical and archaic it looks. Binary packets instead of HTTP? Proprietary physical layers that don't lead to a nice plug and play? And bandwidth handicapped! This is not the direction the rest of the Web-enabled world is moving. Imagine having google earth directly overlayed on to your charts, integrated web tracking of your AIS information as standard on your chartplotter; just to mention of few.
NMEA 2000 operates at 250 kbits/second, very slow compared to Ethernet. Because of this bandwidth limitation, sonar and radar overlays can't be sent over the NMEA 2000 networks, that is why all the major manufacturers have their own proprietary networks for sonar and radar integration with their large display devices. But, NMEA2000 has a few advantages over Ethernet, cost, a collision-less system, time sensitive point to point delivery to name a few. It was developed to function in electrically noisy environments and to have a predictable delivery time for messages. Ethernet does not always provide a real time predictable delivery time or quality of service capabilities.
What all this boils down to is that we boaters have three main ways of creating a network, each of which complements the strengths and weaknesses of the others: NMEA 0183 is perfect for very simple systems—it’s tried, tested, and virtually universal. NMEA 2000 is for most current multisensor/multidisplay systems, and Ethernet is suited to handle large volumes of complex data. Your best to consult your marine electronics expert to see what best suits your application. For me, I'm still running mostly NMEA0183, and with that, I have a number of back up solutions which give me confidence that when the lights go out on my main network, I can use the backup to get home safely. By that time, OneNet may be well established, and it could be a good time to upgrade. I'll just have to do my homework on the best system at the time, which is what we all do mostly.
|A Comparison of the main types of networks/standards|