DIY Sailing Computer Roundup 2016


Whenever I try to explain my hobby project, Mr. Gibbs, to someone I generally get the same response: "wow, that's neat........ but very niche". Of course, they're right, but it wouldn't be a very fun project if it wasn't for me and my needs. I do think there is a bit more to it, however, allow me to explain.

Do you spend hundreds of hours of your life developing custom electronics and software for a hobby that a tiny minority of the population participate in? We should talk.

During the course of researching topics for my project I've come across multiple other similar-but-not-exactly-the-same projects by fellow sailor/engineers. Each of them scratches a particular itch. Maybe the author felt the commercial offering didn't do what they wanted, maybe it cost to much, or maybe the author just wanted to tinker. All are valid reasons to start a hobby project. I thought it might be nice to have a small roundup of the projects I've found, my understanding of them, and how they are the same/different from Mr. Gibbs.

I don't intend this to be contentious, on the contrary, I'm hoping to facilitate the exchange of some of these ideas and perhaps even work together to build something greater than any one of us alone might achieve.

In no particular order...

StartLine RaceBox

The Startline RaceBox by Allen Edwards has goals very similiar to Mr. Gibbs in that it is geared very much toward bouy racing rather than general navigation. It is based on Arduino Edison, but uses many similar hardware components as Mr. Gibbs (Bluetooth, Accelerometer, etc). For display, it has the ability to drive both the Stowe NMEA displays (very nice, but very spendy!) as well as a partner android app. For data it uses the ever popular NMEA 0183 protocol which basically every sailing instrument ever supports, which gives you the ability to plug into existing systems and both consume and create data on the bus.

The Ship Computer

The ship computer by George Theotokis is a blog which I followed even before I bought my first Pebble as I was very interested in pairing a pebble with a raspberry pi. It has a lot in common with Mr. Gibbs since it uses similar hardware (both the Pi and the Pebble) although it appears to be a more general sailing/instrumentation package rather than racing specific.

Signal K

Signal K has a grand vision, to build something open and interoperable from the closed source, proprietary dumpster fire that is the current state of the industry. I agree 100% that we need some modern open standards to work with in this space and I hope that I can integrate and contribute to this project. That being said, my needs are very focused on dinghy racing right now so NMEA doesn't even enter into conversations on my boat simply because any sort of wire is a total non-starter. The rich display demo is impressive, but again something of a non-starter on my specific boat because we're not going to be operating a tablet/touchscreen while sailing a 2 man dinghy. The idea of an interoperable data-bus is very appealing to me, however, so I'm investigating how this might be incorporated into Mr. Gibbs.

Pi Chart

Pi Chart came to my attention because both the author Erland Lewin and I use the site to document our projects. Pi Chart is again less racing focused than Mr. Gibbs, but it still uses many components that I find very interesting, especially the Pixel Qi sunlight readable display.

These are just the projects that I've found that are similiar to Mr. Gibbs because they integrate both a custom hardware and software component. There are probably hundreds of iOS apps, android apps, pebble apps, etc out there which attempt to harness the abilities of those devices to provide some sort of sailing related functionality.

Conclusion, and hopefully, discussion

So what's the point of this list? Simple, if nothing else I think we should be aware of other, similar projects. Maybe we see some good ideas, maybe borrow some logic or code, maybe even collaborate on something.

My views on open vs closed source are probably readily apparent at this point. No matter what your view is of my budget friendly approach, I think most would agree that the commercial systems cost too much and do too little for what they cost. In my view most sailors simply dismiss this technology as an expensive boondoggle because of this.

Racers (of all sorts) are a competitive lot. We all want to think we have the secret sauce, that edge that the other guy doesn't have. Sometimes it's a new cut of sail, a new coating on your bottom, or a fancy new electronic gizmo. I think we need to be more honest with ourselves and realize A) None of us are going to be sailing for Oracle or Land Rover any time soon, B) Even if we invent some amazing algorithm, it's unlikely that code alone is going to win a sailboat race for a long time, and C) We'll get a lot more done if we work together.

With so many projects popping up these days, even a niche as small as this one is bound to find some contributors. I think that eventually the open source work will catch up with and exceed the proprietary systems. By open sourcing your project you can guarantee that no matter what, you are contributing to this goal. One of three things is assured

  • You provide a solid, polished package that others use.
  • You provide a system that has some problems, others use it as a starting point to build from
  • You serve the rest by showing them what NOT to do.

With that in mind, I'd like talk to fellow developers in this niche, what is the best medium? Perhaps a slack channel?

What other projects are out there that I missed?

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