As so often happens, I was inspired to write this post by the comments on a previous one: my rant about modern poorly-designed and hard-to-use marine electronics.
The consensus in the comments was that dedicated marine electronic touch screen devices are difficult to use and overpriced in comparison to general use tablets and phones, particularly those from Apple.
And further, that many people are using phones and tablets for primary navigation.
Since I’m a longtime Apple user—I was an Apple dealer way back in 1984 when the first Mac was released—and fan of all things Apple, I was not surprised. And, in fact, I have already recommended the iPad as a backup navigation system, particularly for those who decide to cruise without paper charts.
That said, as an electronics technician by trade and an experienced navigator, I’m also deeply worried about this trend.
So here are my thoughts on some of the dangers of using phones and tablets for navigation, together with some tips to reduce the possibility of an iThing-enabled wreck:
#1 Screen Size
This first tip is going to be much hated, but so be it, it needs to be said. Phones should not be used for navigation. The screens are too small to provide proper situation awareness—yes, even the new large-screen phones.
Using a screen this small reduces us from real navigators who plan ahead and can relate our position to the features around us—land, shallows, tide rips, etc—to mindless zombies slavishly keeping a little boat icon in the white (or whatever colour the chart uses to indicate deep water).
(Sorry, I know that sounds really harsh and dogmatic but I feel strongly about the dangers and therefore sugar coating this safety issue would be negligence on my part.)
Given this, for the rest of this chapter I will be writing about tablets with a diagonal screen size of 9.7″ and a resolution of 2048-by-1536 pixels (i.e. a full-sized iPad)—the absolute minimum that I have found usable for real navigation.
#2 Planning Difficulty
And while we are on the subject, real navigators never, ever go anywhere without laying down a course (route and waypoints in electronic navigation) before setting out, and without keeping that route updated as things change underway. This is near impossible to do properly on a small-screen phone and not particularly easy on a tablet.
Now of course, at least on a tablet with a decent screen size, the difficulty factor is dependant on the software (app) being used and the skill and practice of the operator.
So if you have laying out a complex route through a danger-strewn area cracked, and can update it quickly and accurately while underway and under stress, more power to you. (Please share the app you use and your process in the comments.)
But if we find ourselves being lazy about proper voyage planning because it’s just too difficult on a tablet…well, we need to look at a better alternative, because otherwise, sooner or later, things will end badly.
(I have found voyage planning on an iPad to be a truly horrible experience, particularly in comparison to using a laptop PC with a mouse attached running navigation software, my preferred solution.)
#3 Accuracy…or Not
While I’m not a believer in cutting really close to dangers, it’s worth knowing that the internal GPS in iPads and iPhones is not Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) capable, a feature that even the least expensive marine GPS has these days.
Of course, we can get around this by using a position input from a dedicated unit over WiFi or Bluetooth—not direct connect as that would compromise a waterproof case—but that has issues too; see tip #6.
#4 Fragility and Backup
I’m a huge believer in thinking about how fault tolerant every mission-critical—and navigation is certainly that—piece of gear is, and it’s here that I get really concerned about using tablets that are dependent on somewhat kludgy after-market cases for water resistance.
But wait, that’s not the worst of it. We tend to use these devices loose, rather than permanently mounted, for much of the time, so the danger of damage from dropping, or even total loss overboard, is very real.
Given this, I strongly recommend that if we are going to use a tablet as part of a primary navigation system, we should have an identical spare unit fully charged, in a waterproof case, and ready to operate at a moment’s notice.
Even with this redundancy we must be aware that if we are forced into using the spare, it won’t be zoomed to the correct place and scale for the situation we are in, and will have no route plotted.
And this in turn may force us into setting the unit up properly at the very moment our entire attention should be focused on handling the boat. A dangerous problem that we probably can’t solve completely, but awareness might help.
Of course, the other option for backup is paper charts, and it’s a good one too, as long as they are truly ready to go, with the correct chart and necessary plotting tools always to hand, not stuffed in a locker somewhere.
But just having the paper charts does not make this a solution either. Even those of us with decades of paper navigation experience are getting rusty in this age of electronics and will fumble a lot when faced with a rapid transition to the old ways…in the dark…when it’s blowing stink…in confined waters. And Mr Murphy will make damned sure that is exactly the situation when the tablet chokes.
So if you are going to rely on paper for backup, make sure you practice often and in difficult conditions too.
Personally, although Phyllis and I have paper always to hand as the ultimate backup, I feel that a hot spare computer or iPad is a better solution for most of us, and that goes double for those who started navigating in the electronic age, even if they did a course at some time that required the old skills.
(Phyllis and I backup our primary navigation system—laptop computer-based with an external screen in the cockpit—with a ready-to-go hot spare laptop and an iPad.)
#5 Battery Powered
Of course tablets are all battery powered, and therein lies a strength and a weakness. The strength is that it’s great to have a navigation unit that is independent of the boat’s power.
But the weakness is that charging a tablet requires breaching the waterproof case, so I can easily see a scenario where we desperately need to use the tablet in the cockpit—fog, lots of traffic, constrained waters—at the very moment that the battery is going flat, particularly since navigation is power intensive.
No real answer I can see here, other than awareness and having the hot spare powered up and ready to take over well before the primary dies—we really, really must have a spare.
#6 WiFi Vulnerability
Tablets rely on WiFi or Bluetooth for many data inputs—AIS, depth, and position if we want WAAS—but these are technologies that were never intended for mission-critical applications. They can and do fail and are difficult to resurrect. So once again, we have the potential of being forced into messing about with complex technology when we should be 100% focused on handling and piloting our boat safely.
There’s not a lot we can do to backup the input of AIS (and many other inputs), but what we can do is make sure that we don’t lose our position, or at least not for long, by only using tablets that have built-in GPS capability, even if we normally use an external GPS source.
#7 Night Vision
To some extent the potential to ruin, or at least severely degrade, our night vision is a problem with all navigation, but at least with purpose-built marine electronics the manufacturers are aware of the problem and provide solutions in the form of easy-dimming red-tone backlighting. (There is a lot of variance in the quality of these solutions, so test before you buy.)
But neither tablets nor PCs are optimized to preserve night vision. Yes, some apps change colour and dim at night, but this is nowhere near as good as the better hardware-based solutions.
For example, on a tablet, if we need to enter text, a bright white/grey keyboard will pop up, which will ruin our night vision for half an hour at least.
(This is one of the reasons we use an external screen in the cockpit—connected to a laptop below—that is purpose designed for both daylight and night viewing.)
And there’s another big danger lurking here: it’s always tempting to pass the long hours of a night watch playing around with non-navigation apps on a close-to-hand computer or tablet—Angry Birds, anyone? Tempting yes, but a really bad habit.
Again, it’s hard to see clean solutions to these problems, although turning the backlighting well down, and not just relying on the app’s night mode, will help.
But even then we must be aware and always remember that, when the chips are down, having good night vision can save our boat…or our life.
#8 App Overload
As most users know, tablets are capable of running multiple programs at once, normally a great feature, but when navigating a real danger, because other programs running in the background while navigating use precious memory and processor power. Too many of these other apps, or even just one badly-behaved one, can result in slow operation or even a complete freeze up of the unit when we need it most.
Therefore, it’s a really good idea to kill all background apps before using a tablet for navigation. This step will also extend battery life.
(On an iPad you can shut down background apps by double pressing the button and then swiping up on each app window.)
#9 Missing Manual
Navigation apps tend to be a lot more complicated than most general-use apps. Sooner or later we will need to refer to the manual, but with many nav apps, including ours (iSailor), the manual resides online and is 180-pages long. It’s going to suck big time if we discover that when offshore without internet service.
Therefore we need to make sure that we download the manual before heading out, for both the primary tablet and the spare. (If the manual is a PDF, find it in the browser and then tap at the top right and tap on “Open in iBooks”, which will download it to your iPad.)
#10 Stealth Updates and Notifications
Tablet software, both apps and operating system, tends to update automatically in the background whenever internet is available. The danger is that upgrades often break stuff. For example, a small operating system update to my iPad wiped out every single chart on it.
I was lucky since it happened while I was on land with high speed internet, so it was just a matter of an hour or so to download all the charts again, but imagine if this happened far from land. Heck, even if I had cellular data available I shudder to think what the data charges would have been to solve the problem.
And, further, many apps use pop-up notifications. Do you really need to know that someone likes your Instagram photo at a critical moment when piloting your boat? And pop-ups are another night-vision ruiner.
So it’s a good idea to turn Cellular Data off when navigating. This will extend battery life, too.
That said, this won’t solve the pop-up problem completely, so it’s also a good idea to turn off alerts for apps like reminder and calendar that will activate pop-ups regardless of internet availability.
To be honest, the drawbacks—both those I list above, and probably some I haven’t thought of—of using tablets for navigation make me want to say “don’t do it; buy a purpose-built navigation system instead”.
But given the deplorable state of marine electronics—overpriced, over-featured, difficult to use, unreliable—that I have written about so much in this Online Book, I can’t say that.
Realistically, tablet navigation (but not phone) may be a better solution for many of us than a purpose-built system, at least for the majority of us who can’t afford to drop US$25,000 or more on a good commercial-quality system from the likes of Furuno. And, even if we can afford it, a tablet will make a great backup.
Therefore, those of us who use tables for navigation (primary or backup) need to be aware of the dangers inherent in using them for a mission-critical function that they were never designed for.
- More on what it means to really navigate.
- Details of our primary navigation system.
- Using an iPad for backup.
- Navigation and Marine Electronics Online Book.
Have you come across any dangers of tablet navigation that I have missed? What about ways to ameliorate these dangers? Please share in a comment.