The days of swinging the lead have long gone, and in its place has come a succession of ever-more sophisticated depth sounders. In the last decade, 3D forward-scanning technology has emerged that could change the way yachts navigate, particularly off the beaten track. Charlotte Thomas investigates

“Various things run aground,” begins Sonardyne’s sales manager for maritime security, Andrew Winstanley, “from navy ships and submarines to, increasingly, commercial ships. And this is just in known, charted areas and channels.” It’s a compelling opening gambit. “That doesn’t include adventure yachts and some of the expeditionary cruise ships which go where perhaps other people don’t,” he continues, “in areas that are perhaps poorly charted or where the seabed is moving a lot because of weather, currents and tides.”

Winstanley’s introduction to the raison d’être behind Sonaryne’s NOAS (Navigation and Obstacle Avoidance Sonar) system brings back memories of a cruise I did in the far and wild reaches of eastern Indonesia aboard a 50m explorer yacht. As we crawled our way through the labyrinthine network of islands and channels in the Raja Ampat archipelago, it was clear that not only were the charts incomplete or non-existent, but often that the GPS was inaccurate enough to render even those charts that did show the vertical reef walls and major sub-surface coral columns next to useless. If only we had had something that could have shown us in real-time, and in three dimensions, what was up ahead.

This is where Sonardyne’s NOAS system comes in. Launched early in 2016, it uses the principles of sonar – and some neat hardware linked to clever software – to create a 3D image of the seabed and obstructions ahead of a vessel. “The product itself will detect objects in conventional sonar mode up to 1,500m ahead,” Winstanley explains, “and then in 3D mode up to 600m.”

Of course, Sonardyne’s 3D sonar is not the only player on the block, and many echo sounder manufacturers tout 3D sonar capability among their equipment, for installation on the smallest tenders and sportsboats to the largest yachts. Not all ‘3D’ systems, however, are created equal, as I discover when I talk to FarSounder – kings of the superyacht sphere when it comes to 3D sonar. “Most of the other systems are really 1D or 2D systems trying to develop 2D or 3D images,” says Cheryl Zimmerman, CEO of FarSounder. “It’s like comparing apples to oranges. We’ve been a company since 2001 and our people were working [on 3D sonar] before we were a company. My engineers are always working hard to stay ahead, and no one has really come out with the capabilities we have at this point.”

FarSounder brought out its first 3D sonar product lines around 2005. “At that point, we were seeing out to about 330m in front of the vessel, but it was still [true] 3D. Over the years we have expanded the technology with new features and advances both in the hardware and the software, and currently we can look ahead 1,000m – over half a nautical mile – in 3D mode for our navigation product line.”

Winstanley too is quick to explain what separates Sonardyne – like FarSounder – from the competition in terms of being a true 3D system. “The sonar itself is proven technology and is drawn from our Sentinel security system, which has been around for nine or so years,” he says. “What we’ve done is use the same sonar technology, then we have developed the software to enable us to have some great imagery. In addition, we have our 3D sonar array. It’s not a 2D sonar enhanced through software.”

Sonardyne’s engineering manager of maritime security Peter Tomlinson explains further. “We have in the water the NOAS sonar itself – which we classify as a 2D sonar – and we have the 3D projector unit as well,” he says. “When we switch from 2D to 3D mode, we turn off the ‘transmit’ of the lower array and transmit on our 3D projector array which contains a number of elements and transducers.” The system effectively frequency encodes the water column ahead of the vessel, sending out different frequencies at different water depths which are then received on the lower array. “Whenever we see targets out front in pure sonar mode, we can correlate that pure sonar mode to the frequency encoded projector and we can then give water depth.” What all that means, essentially, is that in 3D mode the user on the bridge is presented with a gradually growing and stunningly detailed representation of the sea bed and any other obstructions  - right down to the mooring line of a buoy or the angled chains securing a marina pontoon in place. The picture ahead does not appear instantly, but rather is developed over multiple pings which allows for a much more accurate and stable picture of the water depths ahead, as opposed to some of the non-3D systems which merely interpolate what might be there. Moreover, with the NOAS system being designed for integration into a glass bridge, the interface uses touchscreen gestures to allow for manipulation of the orientation of the image and other view functions.

As it turns out, both the Sonardyne and the FarSounder systems have something else in common – they can both be used as part of their manufacturers’ comprehensive underwater security systems. These use a series of sonar sensors – often dropped into the water as individual units that are then patched together to create a 360-degree view – which are able to detect potential threats and isolate them for the awareness of security personnel or crew, including the ability to identify and track divers with rebreathers, swimmers, and other manned or unmanned submersible vehicles. The core of the systems is similar to the navigation versions, but using alternative software. “We use similar sensors,” confirms Zimmerman, “but some of the software programming is very, very different. That’s why we are able to sue some of the same hardware so that when the vessel is underway the bow-mounted sensor can also end up having some of the capabilities of the navigation sonar – but it’s completely different software running it.”

The ability to migrate the forward sonar between navigation and threat detection is useful, but the real key to the systems is the benefit it provides in terms of safe running of the yacht. The detail created in the 3D mapping of the underwater terrain and the potential obstacles is nothing short of mesmerising, and, as Zimmerman points out, it is also something that could prove useful in these days of cyber security and the fear of connectivity blackout. “When people are worried about the denial of services such as GPS, AIS or other information,” she offers, “our systems are very capable of being used even if you have no communications off the ship – our standalone systems can see navigational obstacles, and we can see shallow areas.” Of course, the more day-to-day functionality includes the ability to set depth warnings and other alarms – just in case you aren’t completely glued to the colour-coded, contoured 3D graphic appearing on the screen.

While true 3D forward-scanning tech as used by FarSounder and Sonardyne is relatively new, it is starting to become known - but that doesn’t mean that innovation has plateaued. “We run parallel research in both software and hardware,” Zimmerman says, “but what the industry sees more often are the new features and new capabilities that we bring out via software – and the bonus is that for systems that have been out there for a long time they can just upgrade their computer to take advantage of all the latest capabilities.” Some of those more recent software upgrades allow for the FarSounder sonar navigation data to be incorporated into near real-time shipboard chart updates. “Our customers are now able to build their own 3D charts by storing and combining the sonar’s real-time data of the places they have been during the day,” Zimmerman continues. “Currently it’s for a local history mapping over a period of a day.”

Sonardyne’s software too allows for a recent history to be stored – although not yet to the extent of a day, without exporting the data to an external drive – meaning that should you find yourself heading into an area from where you need to back out, the recent scan data is still showed on the interface allowing for easy safe return route navigation. Part of the problem, of course, is the enormous amount of data that such history tracking can create. “We brought out the first one as just a day’s worth of data because it means you don’t need a secondary [data] storage unit – it would all be held within the computer systems we provide with our standard navigation sonar systems,” says Zimmerman. “It actually opens up more opportunities – we will be bringing out a whole different software line and hardware products including ways to archive longer-term data and play it back, or to share it amongst your own fleet. Then there will be other versions in the future that will allow sharing the data with a wider audience – a sort of crowd-sourcing of information.”

Sonardyne’s methodology is slightly different, in that rather than seek solutions for data storage they apply a more practical approach. “We’re restricted on the ability to store huge amounts of data in the sonar itself,” Tomlinson explains, “but we also deliberately don’t keep the data for a given port or place, as when you return – perhaps six months later – things might be different due to currents, tides or weather phenomena changing the physical aspects of the seabed.”

Either way, it is clear that advances in computer power and the increasing bandwidth of communications (if you want to share data) are making more and more things possible with this relatively new tech. Moreover, the R&D teams are forging ahead with interesting and exciting developments in all aspects of both the hardware and the software, although drawing specific information on what we might expect in the future proves tricky. “We’ve touched on the local history mapping, and we will be going with a whole series of products not only focusing on the forward-looking aspects but the real-time history – that’s one area that we’ll be developing,” admits Zimmerman. “I know the buzzword of autonomous shipping is out there now and I do believe that our technology is probably one of the most appropriate ones to be involved, so expect to hear more about that in the future. I also think we’ll be working more and more on different advances and capabilities to operate in the polar regions as the ice melts and the routes open up.”

In terms of the hardware aspects, the obvious question revolves around form factor. Sonardyne’s units are currently designed as a bath-sized cartridge that can be mounted in a bulbous bow – although that does suggest that suitability is really currently limited to vessels of 70m and up. FarSounder’s units are slightly smaller, but both companies are working on technologies to reduce the overall size. “I think you’ll see us going in both directions – longer ranges, higher speeds, and maybe smaller form factors as well,” says Zimmerman.

As mentioned, both Sonardyne and FarSounder come in security system guises, with the forward unit acting as the forward sector of a complete net that surrounds the vessel. The natural progression, of course, is to wonder whether this merging of uses might allow for a wider field of view for the navigation aspects rather than a more limited cone of visibility. The larger Sonardyne hardware already allows for a wide cone of view in a navigation sense, although the smaller FarSounder unit is currently limited to a 60-degree forward cone for navigation. “A lot of the customers of our security version as asking for a wider field of view also for the navigation,” says Zimmerman, “so that’s definitely an area that is of interest both to our customers and to us.”

The advances are not likely to stop there, though. When I ask if the future will be about developing and refining current technology or if there will be a step change in fundamental aspects of the equipment, Zimmerman plays her cards close to her chest. “Both,” she says. “It’s really things that we don’t yet discuss in detail, but I think you’ll find both major changes and a progression of capabilities and features in the future.” And want of a step change in the user interface – perhaps even to virtual or mixed reality, where you can explore and interact with the 3D data in real-time through a headset as part of a truly virtual bridge? “Yes, there could be mixed or enhanced reality definitely, yes – in all directions there,” Zimmerman says with a laugh and a not so subtle hint. “Things like that keep my R&D team excited…”

Whatever the future holds, 3D sonar is here to stay and it is drawing increasing fans from superyachts keen to explore its possibilities. Having seen the Sonardyne NOAS system in operation on Plymouth Sound, UK aboard Sonardyne’s test rig, I can definitely see the appeal. Zimmerman says that many of the top 100 largest yachts now carry FarSounder 3D systems, while Sonardyne’s recent entry into the market has already found them aboard the largest yacht by volume yet launched. Security interfacers and software specialists MARSS also announced at the end of 2016 a partnership as security distributors for Sonardyne. On the navigation front, FarSounder’s sonar has already been integrated into certain ECDIS systems, with more ECDIS partners to be announced soon.

It’s not difficult to imagine a time when specifying 3D forward-looking sonar for any superyacht above 30m will be almost considered standard, and indeed – quite aside from the technology – Zimmerman believes that the tech represents something of a shift in how yachts are run and navigated. “I see us as just as important as when radar and GPS came out,” she concludes. “I just see that we’re the 21st century tool. And I think there are going to be a lot of advances in 3D forward-looking sonar in the future.”

 

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