Glass Helm

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From NASA to Newport

Mirage Manufacturing creates a “glass helm” on its Great Harbour 47, using off-the-shelf components and teenage talent

GAINESVILLE, Florida, Aug. 31, 2004—Mirage Manufacturing’s newest trawler yacht, the Great Harbour 47 East Passage, features the “glass helm” concept commonly found on military vessels and fine megayachts—the difference being that Mirage used off-the-shelf technology and the computer skills of a 15-year-old to bring it all together.

The results can be summarized in three words: simplicity, functionality, elegance.

When the buyers of East Passage, Brooke and Dee Williams, approached Mirage l

The console is understated with four LCD screens conveying nearly all necessary information for navigation, engine monitoring and weather forecasting.

ast year, Brooke Williams said he wanted integrated PC-based navigation and radar systems—two things that Nobeltec has pioneered for the Windows operating system. That was the beginning of an exciting dialogue between Williams and Mirage President Ken Fickett, who urged Williams to take the Windows concept two steps further.

The result is a pilothouse that, with the exception of an autopilot and VHF radio, is uncluttered by the usual ensemble of gauges and indicators, employing instead four touch-screen displays that bring all navigational information, radar, weather forecasting and engine instrumentation to the helmsman. Instead of a wheel, East Passage is hand-steered by a tiller only a few inches long.

Fickett, drawing on his years manufacturing experimental aircraft, was inspired by what the aviation industry and NASA call the “glass cockpit.” This revolution in aircraft instrumentation began in the 1970s with the advent of airworthy CRT screens to replace the standard electromechanical gauges and culminated with the 1982 introduction of the Boeing 767. Today’s space shuttle has 11 full color flat panel screens.

Along these lines, megayacht builders have been putting mega-expensive proprietary integrated or glass helms on their vessels for a decade, and, though anathema to trawler traditionalists, go-fast Sea Ray has the led the way in the recreational market with similar innovations.

East Passage features four full-color, 15-inch LCD touch screens. Three are linked to a Pilot House PC, and the fourth is a slave screen to a second PC in Brooke Williams’ onboard

Travis Fickett, Mirage’s unofficial IT manager, assembles a PC from PC pieces.

office down below. As mentioned, each is touch screen, but for those programs which do not lend themselves to touch-screen operation, these computers also operate with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

A recent passage from Annapolis to Jamestown, R.I. aboard East Passage demonstrated a typical scenario. The starboard-most screen displayed propulsion motor and genset RPMs, oil pressure, water temp and other engine data in the form of stylized analog gauges. The two mid-ship screens in front of the helm chair displayed Nobeltec radar and gps/chartplotter, a division of functions the owner finds preferable to radar overlay.

The portside screen—the one linked to the office computer—was available to display real-time forecasting via WxWorx satellite weather service, video from an aft-facing camera, or a second Nobeltec navigational display, allowing the watchstander to have a large and small scale view of local waters simultaneously.

One of the great surprises on that passage would please those night-vision curmudgeons among us—you know the type. Compared to a conventionally outfitted pilothouse, the screens dimmed to near nothing with night-view software. Helping was the fact that most of the electrical panel on the Great Harbour 47 is housed in a mechanical or utility room adjacent to the engines, not in the pilothouse. These panels are the source of great cumulative

Typically when developing a new concept involving furniture, Mirage Manufacturing builds plywood mock-ups to ensure proper scale and functionality.

light pollution because each breaker has its own tiny indicator bulb. The mechanical room, by the way, features a full set of conventional engine gauges and alarms, providing redundancy to the on screen display at the helm.

Having the acumen to realize the day had come that such a system was possible with off-the-shelf components was one thing. Actually building it was quite another. It takes a particular talent to solve the many niggling challenges that would arise bringing the system together. For the actual assembly, Mirage turned to its in-house IT manager, Travis Fickett, Ken Fickett’s (then) 15-year-old son. Many an afternoon after school, Travis spent at the Mirage factory, where he built and integrated the entire system in the conference room so it could be tested prior to installation on the vessel itself.

During this period of trial and troubleshooting—several weeks—Brooke Williams lived in Gainesville to be able to make quick decisions about the many options that presented themselves, as well as to monitor progress as Mirage finished the vessel itself.

For engine instrumentation and systems monitoring Mirage used FT NavVision. Non-digital signals from the various sending units are brought together in a Wago Bus, which converts the signal to digital and allows sending units to talk to FT NavVision via a single CAT 5 cable. FT NavVision constitutes the signals, and allows the user to choose how to view the information. Williams chose a format that displayed traditional analog-looking gauges.

This system has the potential to let a mariner see trends in the engine in a far more sophisticated way than conventional alarms. It can alert the owner to engine trends long before, say, the oil pressure had fallen sufficiently to trigger a mechanical alarm. Williams offered another example. “If I check in the morning and there’s a little water in the bilge, I wanted to know, did the bilge pump run all night to prevent me from sinking or did I just take on about three ounces,” he said.

FT NavVision also would allow examination of an engine’s condition by analysis of historical data. And it would allow the same internet monitoring of a vessel now offered by various expensive subscription services.

“The question that everyone is worried about, and we’ve had in the fringes is: What happens if it all crashes? Well it doesn’t all crash; a fingernail falls off or something else falls off. But with a hand-held GPS you can go anywhere in the world,” Williams said, opening the drawer that holds his collection of hand-helds. And stowed nearby is an emergency steering wheel that can be quickly mounted on a spline should the electronic steering fail.

Read the transcript of Trawler Times’ Q&A with Brooke Williams.


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