Lost & Found

AD­VANCES IN MOB AND SMART­PHONE TECH­NOL­OGY PUT LIFE-SAV­ING FUNC­TION­AL­ITY AT YOUR FIN­GER­TIPS.

Power & Motor Yacht - - EXPOSURE - BY BEN EL­LI­SON

DDoes it make sense to use smart­phones and tablets for a man over­board alarm and re­cov­ery sys­tem? I can tes­tify that the first re­ac­tion of Sail mag­a­zine’s Pittman In­no­va­tion Award judges was skep­ti­cism. None­the­less we found PanPan’s CrewWatcher ( crew

watcher.com) so well thought out and po­ten­tially so use­ful that we gave it an award in the safety cat­e­gory, and then an in­de­pen­dent sec­ond set of judges picked it for the Over­all Win­ner. And truth be told, the fin­ished CrewWatcher per­sonal bea­cons (and, while we’re at it, apps) don’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist yet!

“Ev­ery­one’s okay”—or to be more spe­cific, “ev­ery­one is still on the boat”—is one hell of a nice thing to know when you’re un­der way, espe­cially in the dark or when it’s rough, or both. In many sit­u­a­tions if you don’t learn that a per­son has gone over­board quite quickly, he or she is go­ing to die, pos­si­bly not quickly. I worry about this, even though I’ve yet to ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther side of a per­son over­board sit­u­a­tion. So I not only ap­pre­ci­ate the evo­lu­tion of per­sonal MOB bea­cons, I par­tic­u­larly like the type that can reg­u­larly re­as­sure me that they’re work­ing.

The PanPan CrewWatcher is just such an ac­tive MOB sys­tem, also termed “alarm on fail­ure” when I tested Ray­ma­rine’s LifeTag a decade ago. If set to Watch mode, the orange CrewWatcher bea­cons com­mu­ni­cate every sec­ond over Blue­tooth 4 with which­ever Ap­ple iOS or An­droid de­vice you’re us­ing the CrewWatcher app on. In fact, the Blue­tooth sig­nal strength icons an­i­mate re­as­sur­ingly, and the bea­con icons even wig­gle when the ac­tual bea­cons pass within a few feet of the phone or tablet. While you cer­tainly don’t have to be look­ing at the app to know when a bea­con’s con­nec­tion fails,

or if one goes in the wa­ter—es­ca­lat­ing siren sounds, spo­ken “Man Over­board!” au­di­bles, and strob­ing cam­era flashes take care of that quite well—it is com­fort­ing to have a lively screen in­di­cat­ing that ev­ery­one is OK. If you read the full 2017 Pittman In­no­va­tion Awards re­port at sail

mag­a­zine.com, you’ll see that the Over­all Win­ner judges were espe­cially im­pressed with the CrewWatcher’s ease of use, to which I can at­test. The small orange bea­cons don’t have a switch or even bat­tery ac­cess. You just in­stall the app, tap the “Add a PanPan” but­ton, and al­most im­me­di­ately you’ll be able to name a bea­con with about as much de­tail as you’d like. In fact, judg­ing from the images on PanPan’s site—my beta apps don’t have the fea­ture yet—you’ll be able to add a photo of the per­son who will ac­tu­ally wear the 1.7-ounce bea­con around their neck or carry it in their pocket. Ac­cord­ing to the com­pany, it’s also easy to re­name a bea­con, or dis­able one when you just want to keep a watch on oth­ers.

The prime en­abling tech­nol­ogy be­hind CrewWatcher is Blue­tooth 4, also known as Blue­tooth Smart or Blue­tooth Low En­ergy. It’s why the bea­con can be switch­less even with­out a re­place­able bat­tery, and still claim a three-year life­time of “nor­mal use.” And while PanPan has not yet de­vised a bea­con re­place­ment pro­gram, I’ve seen a de­tailed bat­terylife spread­sheet that sug­gests it might have a much longer real life­time. (That in­for­ma­tion should be avail­able on PanPan’s site soon.)

When I be­gan dis­cussing the CrewWatcher with PanPan founder Ja­son Schot last Novem­ber, I was im­pressed with how much thought his team was giv­ing to false alarms. Blue­tooth may claim ranges “up to” 100 or even 200 me­ters, but that’s line-of-sight in an ideal en­vi­ron­ment quite un­like the tan­gle of block­ing ob­jects and elec­tro­mag­netic in­ter­fer­ence that is a typ­i­cal boat. And too many false alarms can be the ruin of oth­er­wise valu­able safety de­vices.

There’s also a fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion to an ac­tive wire­less MOB sys­tem like CrewWatcher. You want max­i­mum range for min­i­mum false alarms, but you also want a real alarm process to start as soon as pos­si­ble, espe­cially in cold waters and espe­cially with a sys­tem like this that can only cap­ture the “point of loss” po­si­tion (be­cause the bea­con does not have its own GPS, and will be out of touch any­way). Be­sides the many tim­ing sub­tleties sug­gested in the beta set­tings and de­bug screens (which real own­ers will never see), the PanPan team has come up with three sig­nif­i­cant ways to deal with these is­sues.

First of all, the CrewWatcher bea­con has a wa­ter-de­tec­tion sen­sor, and even the pro­to­types I’ve been test­ing are good at dis­tin­guish­ing the real thing from damp­ness and spray. Wa­ter de­tec­tion trig­gers the MOB alarm rou­tine when the Blue­tooth con­nec­tion is still ac­tive, and imag­ine how much you might ap­pre­ci­ate that fea­ture if you were be­ing dragged off the stern by your tether. A think-out­side­the-box friend even the­o­rizes that he could use a CrewWatcher bea­con as a high bilge wa­ter alarm on his own boat or when he’s crew­ing (see Roger Tay­lor’s won­der­ful El­e­ments of Sea­man­ship for ad­vice on how to po­litely check the bilges of any boat you leave a dock aboard).

More­over, by the time the CrewWatcher bea­cons ship, hope­fully soon, the sys­tem will pur­port­edly of­fer “mesh­ing”—mean­ing that all watched bea­cons and app-run­ning phones/tablets will form a net­work that al­lows the Blue­tooth sig­nal to find al­ter­nate paths through­out. Also in de­vel­op­ment is a choice of Blue­tooth power lev­els, so a crew will be able to ad­just the sys­tem to get max­i­mum re­sponse with min­i­mum false alarms for a boat’s par­tic­u­lar size and com­po­si­tion (steel and alu­minum boats will need more power and/ or more pop­u­lous bea­con/app net­works). And if you can use low­power modes, ac­cord­ing to the bat­tery spread­sheet even heavy use shouldn’t flat­ten the bat­tery though­out its own life­time.

In­ci­den­tally, other some­what ob­vi­ous uses for CrewWatcher, be­sides reg­u­lar per­son-over­board sit­u­a­tions, in­clude mind­ing a ten­der you’re tow­ing or even an oc­ca­sion­ally im­petu­ous pet. (For in­stance, my long­time boat­ing com­pan­ion, the springer spaniel Dixie Belle, once woke up from an af­ter­deck nap, took one whiff of the seal is­land close to wind­ward, leapt over­board and swam about 25 yards that way be­fore re­al­iz­ing that she was be­ing quite fool­ish.)

Mean­while, I ac­tu­ally took one PanPan bea­con, along with my iPad and grand­daugh­ter, to a large demon­stra­tion re­cently, though it turned out that she’s so smart she didn’t want to forge deep into the crowd. So, be­yond-the-box read­ers, how else could the com­pletely por­ta­ble CrewWatcher be used?

As I men­tioned, CrewWatcher’s au­di­ble and flash MOB alarms are im­pres­sive (and work at full vol­ume re­gard­less of the de­vice’s vol­ume set­ting), and so are the screens that help guide a re­cov­ery. While I’ve yet to try it un­der way, I hope to soon, and it’s great that all own­ers can do ex­ten­sive test­ing eas­ily and of­ten: Walk­ing sim­u­la­tions along my boatyard’s docks were promis­ing.

The point of loss in one test I did was about 100 feet from the boat, which I think is re­al­is­tic if the wa­ter sen­sor some­how stayed dry, and the 380-plus feet I walked be­yond that is about what it some­times takes to get some boats turned around. The CrewWatcher app guided me ac­cu­rately back to the point of loss, near which I got the

“sig­nal found” no­ti­fi­ca­tion and could have fo­cused the fi­nal search and ap­proach. Bet­ter yet, I know that the PanPan team is work­ing on spo­ken guid­ance for the whole re­cov­ery process, which will mean not hav­ing to look at the screen at all.

But ob­vi­ously what I’ve been test­ing so far is not ex­actly the promised CrewWatcher sys­tem, which is now avail­able to pre­order and that is de­servedly get­ting pub­lic­ity, and that’s a lit­tle vex­ing. Nor­mally when I beta-test a prod­uct, it’s mainly use­ful so I can write bet­ter about it when it’s an­nounced. I don’t usu­ally dis­cuss beta bugs be­cause they’ve been fixed. In this case, how­ever, I must tell you that CrewWatcher didn’t work prop­erly with my Sam­sung Note 4 phone run­ning An­droid 6.0.1. Ac­tu­ally, it can pair with the bea­cons and ap­pear to watch them, but nei­ther sig­nal loss nor wa­ter de­tec­tion trig­gered the alarm, which is worse than not work­ing at all (and just one rea­son that user test­ing is im­por­tant).

The PanPan team is sur­prised by my test trou­ble, can’t du­pli­cate it on a phone also run­ning An­droid 6.0.1, and is send­ing re­place­ment pro­to­type bea­cons that, they tell me, may work fine. But then again, An­droid is no­to­ri­ously “looser” than Ap­ple’s iOS and it’s still not un­com­mon to see Blue­tooth de­vices ac­com­pa­nied by spe­cific lists of just which An­droid phones and tablets are proven to be com­pat­i­ble. Plus, there’s a caveat about us­ing any smart thing in a safety sys­tem that’s well be­yond beta is­sues and prob­a­bly can’t be over­come by even the smartest de­vel­op­ers.

Let’s call it the Bad Elf Phe­nom­e­non (sorry, Elf ). I en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­viewed the Bad Elf Pro Blue­tooth iPad GPS in 2012, and I know that many users also came to think of it as an ex­cel­lent and re­li­able al­ter­na­tive to the ex­tra cost of an iPad with an in­ter­nal GPS. Its re­ceiver is much bet­ter, it’s much more in­for­ma­tive, and it can also log de­tailed track in­for­ma­tion, even stand alone. Plus, I’m happy to re­port that the sam­ple unit was still work­ing fine when I fired it up for CrewWatcher test­ing, and, in fact, the prod­uct has got­ten bet­ter. The Bad Elf app ( bad-elf.com) of­fers a lot more fea­tures, and it also eas­ily up­dated the hard­ware’s firmware so the Pro can now si­mul­ta­ne­ously send its data to some An­droid de­vices (though not, ahem, my Note 4).

Reg­u­lar im­prove­ment is what we can cheer­fully ex­pect from a wellde­signed and sup­ported Blue­tooth smart de­vice, and I’m quite con­fi­dent that PanPan is like Bad Elf in that re­gard. But there was a pe­riod when this smart Blue­tooth prod­uct sud­denly could not com­mu­ni­cate with smart mo­biles at all. If you were a skip­per who de­pended on the Elf for your nav­i­ga­tion app, and you let your iPad up­date to iOS 8.3 in April 2016, you lost GPS un­til 8.4 came out in late June 2016, de­spite what I imag­ine were some pretty heated com­mu­ni­ca­tions to Ap­ple from the Bad Elf crew and other man­u­fac­tur­ers of Blue­tooth GPS prod­ucts. Com­pa­nies like Ap­ple, Google, and Sam­sung can barely see down to boaters or boat­ing de­vel­op­ers over their very large bel­lies.

This is not the only prob­lem Bad Elf has suf­fered with new iOS ver­sions and the com­pany has doc­u­mented them well as part of its pro­phy­lac­tic “Cleared to Up­date Pro­gram.” So, while I in­tend to con­tinue test­ing the CrewWatcher bea­con and app sys­tem up to and be­yond its ship date with high ex­pec­ta­tions, we should all re­al­ize that a wrench could be dropped into the works by any “smart” de­vice up­date and it might not get fixed quickly.

Oddly enough, there is an­other Blue­tooth 4 MOB sys­tem from Sea-Tags ( sea-tags.com) that’s avail­able for pre-order, though I can only re­port what’s on the com­pany’s web­site. I do not see any men­tion of wa­ter de­tec­tion, let alone mesh­ing or Blue­tooth power-level con­trol, but some may like the watch­band form fac­tor, and at first I found the map­ping in the app at­trac­tive. But when asked, PanPan’s Ja­son Schot pointed out that map­ping is usu­ally ir­rel­e­vant at the scale of MOB sit­u­a­tions, and I think he’s right.

The Sea-Tags app can be con­fig­ured to text an emer­gency con­tact, but I have a hard time pic­tur­ing how that would be help­ful. If you are a sin­gle-han­der, for in­stance, go­ing over­board is a dif­fer­ent and even more se­ri­ous prob­lem than what I’ve been dis­cussing, and the more ap­pro­pri­ate de­vice to have with you is a Per­sonal Lo­ca­tor Bea­con, an AIS MOB bea­con, a hand­held DSC VHF ra­dio, or all of the above (and a gumby suit).

And last, but not at all least, an­other new MOB de­vice com­ing on the mar­ket is the new ACR AISLink per­sonal MOB bea­con ( acr

elec­tron­ics.com) that looks par­tic­u­larly well made and de­signed, and it also has the added Res­cueMe-style DSC VHF alarm­ing I sus­pect to be very valu­able. It al­ready looks as though pro­gram­ming it with my boat’s MMSI num­ber is eas­ier than I feared—the process is wire­less with even an app—and I pre­dict that the test­ing will shred one claim made by CrewWatcher, “30x AIS” speed, about which I’m al­ready quite du­bi­ous. Plus, of course, MOB alarm speed has a dif­fer­ent value when your bea­con has a GPS and can trans­mit your po­si­tion to your own ves­sel and oth­ers within a few miles.

The evolv­ing world of MOB bea­cons is a con­fus­ing one, but there are many promis­ing and valid op­tions.

CrewWatcher is at its heart an app that uses Blue­tooth-en­abled mo­bile de­vices (above) to track per­sonal bea­cons (above right).

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