It all started with wanting to further enhance our smartAIS product range and take AIS to a wider audience. Knowing so strongly of the safety benefits AIS provides, we wanted more boaters to adopt the technology. The more who are using it, the more valuable it becomes as a navigation aid. AIS is a powerful tool for navigation but historically it has been viewed by many boaters as a luxury. We felt it should be commonplace on most vessels, so set out to change all that.
As we started to think about the broader navigational safety and communications picture, VHF voice and DSC were two more pieces of what felt like the same puzzle. A lesson we learned with our earlier WatchMate Vision product was that our customers loved the ability to connect with a VHF and initiate a DSC call to another vessel from its touch screen interface. The problem was not all VHF marine radios were able to offer this integration and being separate products, it required the customer to make the wired connection via NMEA 0183, and needed the user to do things on both devices to make the actual call. The design challenge then became how to tightly integrate smartAIS with VHF voice and DSC into one seamless user experience, to fully leverage the safety benefits that each offered.
VHF marine radios have had advanced functionality like DSC calling for some years which is largely underused. We knew this from our own boating experience through the frustration of trying to use the advanced features and trying to teach crew how to use even the most basic functions. DSC calling is perhaps the clearest example of the existing failure in design. During a collision situation with another vessel, a man overboard or other distress situation, DSC offers a powerful direct communication tool allowing the skipper to declare his situation and to the right vessels quickly. To date it has largely meant going through a complex menu and manually typing in MMSI numbers, proving impractical for most urgent situations.
Once we decided on building a VHF the first key objective was to distill VHF down to its bare essentials. We posed the question: ‘What do people use a VHF marine radio for 95% of the time?’ We knew if we focused on delivering that well, the rest would follow. We wanted to break away from 40 years of the accepted understanding about what a VHF was and how it should work.
Our advantage was not already being a VHF manufacturer with a preconceived idea about how things should be done. We were also a small innovative AIS company with a mission to broaden AIS adoption to all boaters. Starting with AIS at the core of our design meant it was an intrinsic part of the product and not just bolted on to an existing concept.
As plans began to form and technology platforms explored, there were a number of what seemed like natural evolutions where we saw the opportunity to provide even greater benefit to the customer. We wanted to get our smartAIS Anchor Watch alarms off the boat, allowing boaters to enjoy the security of knowing their vessel is safely at anchor while ashore. Putting in place the technological capability to deliver this gave us the platform to deliver far more off the boat than just a simple alarm message. We could start to consider what other information a customer might want off the boat.
In order to support the mounting number of functions in one device, we needed to innovate away from the traditional hardware-driven approach and to instead use a simpler unified hardware base with software-based signal processing. A software-defined platform would also give us the ability to update and improve the product long into the future without also forcing our customers to have to update their hardware. This allowed us to focus on the core features up front, knowing the product enhancements and new features can be rolled out at a later date.
It now seemed as if the pillars of our design had been founded - VHF, AIS and Monitoring off the boat. These would each be at the very heart of our product. Each would be tightly integrated, leveraging the advantages of each to ensure a complete and intuitive user experience. It would be software defined ensuring the ability to deploy ongoing improvements to ensure we could deliver what the boater truly needs out of a safety navigation product.