Boats of the Future: Connected systems and apps bring marinas into the future

Published On
Aug 13, 2021

Until recently, a marina visit might have meant fueling up your boat, buying a bag of ice and heating up a snack in a microwave. Finding a place to dock the boat was a matter of searching the slips for space and boaters just hooked up to the closest power supply.

Today, marinas serve a more power-hungry and digitally connected audience, which has led to the development of the smart marina. Many levels of intelligence bring on-site operations into view for marina managers and boat owners, and companies providing installations and the installed hardware have seen some significant trends.

Today, marinas are online, and most offer internet connectivity. Boat owners are using more power than ever, which means marina operators need to track that power consumption. In some cases, occupancy sensors help marinas track what slips are available, and they can share that information through boating apps.

The internet of things (IoT) delivers some of these features. IoT systems are already bringing intelligence to everything from buildings to appliances, so it’s not surprising that marinas are following the same trajectory. Sensors are being used for smart boat storage, and even smart boats themselves, to help operators and boaters understand what’s taking place, even when they aren’t there.

Worldwide, marinas have been busy over the past year. Recreational boat sales hit a 13-year high in 2020 (with 320,000 boats sold, up 13% from the year before) and have maintained that growth even as the pandemic abates, according to a June report from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. An estimated 100 million Americans go boating annually.

To serve the growing market, marinas are getting larger and more are being built. Site management is also becoming automated to keep track of what boats are where, how much power they are using and when there is a security or safety risk.

Technology company Monnit, South Salt Lake, Utah, makes the systems that integrators are using to build solutions for marinas. The company partners with system integrators who build Monnit technology with their own custom backend software, said Nick Mecham, Monnit’s vice president of business development.

Meeting the needs of boaters and marinas

The technology trends follow two drivers, Mecham said: what boaters want and what marina operators want. Boat owners want to know what’s happening around their boat when they’re not there. In the cold and extreme heat, humidity and temperature sensors help manage conditions, while water-level tracking and vibration meters ensure the bilge pump turns on. When the pump switches on, the data can be compared to the water level rise.

“That’s really their thing,” Mecham said, and integrators make solutions to include these systems.

Marina owners, on the other hand, want to know what slips are filled, how much power boats are consuming and when there may be a safety hazard that needs addressing, even a boat fire.

Technology can’t solve all problems. In fact, marina operators ask for a variety of services, many of which are not possible.

“They want to know gas flow and gas spills,” Mecham said. “Where we’ve succeeded is monitoring power to the boats.”

Monnit provides a current transducer that tracks power with measurements that can be provided to the boat owner, too. That matters to marinas, especially as power use grows. The trend toward bigger boats continues, and boats in the same class size are using about twice as much power as comparable crafts did two decades ago.

“We build the sensor solution that gets deployed and we really rely on system integrators,” Mecham said, to build out systems for marinas.

Individual power consumption can also be monitored with a dedicated piece of hardware such as a power pedestal for each slip, said Chris Dolan, manager of sales and customer relations for Marina Electrical Equipment Inc., Williamsburg, Va. Typically, each slip has its own pedestal, or two boats share. The systems are installed and provided by marinas, or in some cases the dock builders, as part of a larger project package. Marina Electrical Equipment provides consulting and the products. If a marina owner, operator or developer needs the support, “we make recommendations as to what they need,” he said.

The technological evolution has been significant over the past five years, Dolan said. In part, that is because almost every facility is completely wireless, and in some cases, the very pedestals that Marina Electrical Equipment provides are being used for remote access.

European imports

Several European technology companies are offering IoT technology for ports and are beginning to sell solutions in the United States. The Patras Port in Greece launched an early IoT solution that monitors mooring berths in a smart yachting area. It also measured seawater level and observed weather conditions by combining the Libelium Waspmote Plug & Sense! sensor platform with an app from Sammy, a Greek start-up.

Falco, another startup, is developing a marina management solution that combines sensors deployed throughout a marina with a backend that plugs into the marina’s management software, with a smartphone app for boat owners. Falco’s solution is already deployed in 12 European ports and starting to sell in the United States.

Falco spun off of French research center Inria. Between 2017 and 2019, Inria had been perfecting the core technology through partnerships with large marinas, including the Cap d’Agde, one of the largest marinas in Europe. Falco’s solution uses wireless intelligence to make marinas part of a digital ecosystem to oversee conditions at their facility and on boats. Falco recently opened a U.S. subsidiary in the Boston area for marina deployments, said Thomas Watteyne, Falco’s co-founder and scientific advisor.

Falco sensors can detect whether a boat is in a slip and which one it is in. Additional devices can be installed to monitor electricity consumption, possibly on a per-boat basis. The marina personnel have instant access to information about the marina through their dedicated app. Connector software can bring the data into the marina’s existing management software.

“Typically, the technology is bringing real-time visibility to mid-sized facilities with 500 to 1,000 moorings, although we have a lot of demand as well from smaller marinas,” Watteyne said.

Boaters can install a Falco device inside their boat. This smoke detector-sized device tracks conditions including fire, intrusion, listing, impact with another boat or excursion outside of its geofenced area. It also continuously monitors the state of the boat through periodic temperature and humidity measurements.

The boater is reassured that their boat is doing fine, even when they are not on it, and they know that, “were something to happen, the marina personnel would be there immediately to sort things out,” Watteyne said.

“One of the goals of the Falco solution, is to foster an even closer relationship between a boater and her marina,” he said.

The Falco app, which is typically branded by the marina, on top of allowing the boater to monitor the state of their boat, also serves as a digital marina.

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