A new age of digital cartography is dawning, and you could help make it happen — whether you know you’re doing it or not.
NOAA’s 2015 Fleet-Allocation Plan lists 17 vessels with 3,135 days at sea, covering waters from Kure Island, Hawaii, to West Quoddy Head, Maine. Along with hydrographic surveys, these vessels are charged with fisheries management, oceanographic research, and a litany of other responsibilities. Given that there are three million square nautical miles of U.S. waters and 500,000 square nautical miles considered to be “navigationally significant,” depending on this comparatively microscopic fleet to keep our charts up to date is akin to charging the Sputnik probes with mapping the Milky Way.
Our cartography isn’t as bad as it might be, only because NOAA has both time and money on its side. Time, because they’ve been working up a database since Thomas Jefferson mandated nautical surveys beginning in 1807. And money, because today NOAA spends up to $50 million a year hiring private survey companies to gather hydrographic data in addition to the data they collect. But, as you probably know already, much of the old data still used to create “modern” charts is no longer accurate. Channels change. Sand bars shift. And you might not find out about it until your bow plows into something a whole lot harder than H2O.
Fortunately, these days — if your gear is relatively up to date — you do have the ability to correct the charts in your own chartplotter. The first company to figure out how to put the digital wax pencil into our hands was Navionics, way back in 2010. They introduced an optional crowd-sourced data layer to their digital charts, one you could easily alter on your own. And in the very first year, more than 200,000 digital updates were generated by Navionics’ million-plus users.
The downside? Everyone gets to hold the same pencil and scrawl on your digital charts. While time has proven that malevolent fiddling with the charts is extremely rare — and when it does happen, Navionics has little trouble identifying and fixing the disruptive data, then shutting the malcontent source out of the system — crowd sourcing does introduce the potential for accidental user error.
Navico’s introduction of Insight Genesis (for B&G, Simrad, and Lowrance) in late 2012 pioneered the automated gathering of bathymetric data with one’s own fishfinder, coupled with position data from your GPS/chartplotter, vastly reducing the human element — and the errors that so often come with it. Insight Genesis began as a rather basic service, though it was anything but simple: you recorded a data log of your sonar pings along with GPS positions on an SD card, then plugged the card into your computer and uploaded its smarts to the cloud. After Navico crunched the data on their end, you could download the data and — for a fee — see your self-generated chart on your chartplotter. In essence, Insight Genesis allowed you to survey and map any specific piece of water on your own. You could chart your local channel, develop a bathymetric database where charts read “unknown,” and even map out ponds, coves, and lakes no one had bothered with in the past.
But that was three years ago, which, as anyone familiar with marine electronics knows, is already ancient history. Navico quickly improved the process with wireless abilities (eliminating the card swapping) and got rid of the added fees. They brought some forms of voluntary crowd-sourcing into the mix. And bottom-composition data added the ability to color charts with weed, rock, and sand data layers. Meanwhile, Humminbird got into the game with a similar service called Autochart Live. Like Insight Genesis, it gave the user the ability to create his or her own error-free digital chart of a body of water merely by hitting a few buttons on the chartplotter/fishfinder, then driving back and forth in a grid pattern.
Wait a sec — what about tidal changes and transducer offsets? If we’re trying to improve accuracy, don’t these factors need to be accounted for? Yes. And since the information gathered by that little black box at your helm includes your exact location and is time-stamped, tides can be accounted for. Keel offsets can be recorded. And all of the companies providing these services have algorithms that they use to check for anomalies. While they may not be perfect — last time I checked, no system was — they’re far more reliable than anything we’ve seen to date. And they’re getting better by the day.
Imagine, just for a moment, if instead of a mere 17-vessel fleet, thousands and thousands of boats could feed all this data gathered by their fishfinders and chartplotters into our communal database. At the same time. Automatically.
The biggest downside to the self-charting systems developed by Navico and Humminbird? You could only use them if you had the right model and brand of unit at your helm, and while you helped yourself, you didn’t necessarily help anyone else. That’s great for a few of us, but not for all of us. What would take digital cartography to the next level was brand-neutrality.
Navionics took the best trait of their own system (mass data collection via crowd-sourcing), combined it with the best attribute of other manufacturers’ systems (gathering data directly from your fishfinder/chartplotter), and, for 2015, takes another leap forward with what they call SonarCharts Live, which utilizes Wi-Fi to synch up your navigation gear with your cell phone and the cloud. You get a real-time display of the data you’re collecting on your phone or tablet, and the rest of the job gets done automatically — the uploading of data, Navionic’s data-crunching, and the later downloading of the new and improved cartography right back to your helm display. You just open the app on your phone. After that? You. Do. Nothing. Every ping and position your fishfinder records get air-lifted to the cloud and incorporated into cartography updates in less than a week. Perhaps most important, this isn’t a proprietary advantage; the system works with most major brands (B&G, Garmin, Humminbird, Lowrance, Raymarine, and Simrad), and the data gathered by everyone is available to everyone — vastly improving our digital charts, no matter what brand of chartplotter sits at the helm.
Yes, the system does need Wi-Fi, but in case you haven’t noticed, Wi-Fi has been making its way onto our boats in a big way lately. Many new MFDs come with Wi-Fi built in, and add-on systems like Wave Wi-Fi, Navico’s GoFree, Garmin’s Marine Wi-Fi Adaptor, and others are connecting more boats than ever before. And this opens up a new world of opportunities for automated data-shifting.
As one might guess, it isn’t easy to get a number of electronics manufacturers to share the digital sandbox. But Navionics has a lot of practice at it, having had to work with many of them over the years.
“Coming up with something innovative is sometimes less of an effort than overcoming skepticism about it,” said Navionics president Giuseppe Carnevali. “I remember in the early days, participating in a conference of the Royal Institute of Navigation, about this new thing called the electronic chart. At one point a senior officer stood up and said that the Royal Navy would never use this gimmick made by pirates. I stood up and said that maybe he misspoke; he said pirates but he really meant pioneers. Everybody had a laugh and we shook hands. The rest is history.”
Truth be told, the various electronics manufacturers still don’t commonly play nice with each other. But given that most can use Navionics cartography, the company can make an end run around branding. “Our effort goes into making it fun and effortless for boaters to improve the safety and enjoyment of the entire boating community,” Carnevali added. “In the long term, with millions of boaters improving the 3D model of the seafloor every day and combining that data with professional surveys, we can expect to achieve a level of coverage and accuracy that would be unthinkable with conventional means.”
Just how big will the cartographic data pool get? Navionics say they average around 20,000 edits a week. In the peak season, there are about 60 million user app sessions, and the hope is that the user base will “survey” 7.5 million-plus acres of water this year.
If you have a mid- to upper-range Navico or Humminbird fishfinder/chartplotter unit at the helm of your boat, you don’t have to wait one second to start benefitting from self-generated cartography. You can go out on the water right now and create your own virtually error-free, exceedingly detailed bathymetric charts of whatever body of water you choose. You can share your data, or not, as you choose. And truth be told, there are probably some folks out there — anglers, in particular — who won’t be ecstatic about sharing what they might discover on their depth sounders. But considering how quickly Wi-Fi is making inroads where there are no roads, chances are that within the next few years, whatever brand of fishfinder or chartplotter you run, you’ll be benefitting from the pings and positions of countless other vessels.
Can we say that eliminating the human element from data collection truly eliminates error? No. There’s bound to be error in any data pool, so the real trick is minimizing it. But the parameters for doing so are already in place. The technology is in place. The infrastructure is quickly expanding. And many of the boats crisscrossing harbors, rivers, bays, and oceans from Hawaii to West Quoddy, Maine, are already streaming endless cartographic information into that data pool. Soon yours probably will be doing the same, and as a result, your own bathymetric charts — along with everyone else’s — are going to be a whole lot better.