Autopilots have come a long way in recent years and are now capable of much more than simply self-steering. The latest units can not only be set to a preset heading but are capable of communicating with GPS chartplotters to follow a route of waypoints directly to your desired destination. While once only found aboard large yachts and custom sportfishers, autopilots are now more affordable than ever and a perfect fit for smaller outboard powered vessels.
While this convenience isn’t a standard feature on many vessels, once you realize the benefits of an autopilot you’ll wonder how you ever lived without one. However, first and foremost it’s extremely important to note that helmsmen must remain vigilant and fully aware of their surroundings when underway in autopilot mode.
With Fantum Feedback, NavPilot outboard installations no longer require use of a physical rudder feedback unit.
The convenience of freeing up your hands has a steep price if you lack other desirable electronics like a sonar or radar, but there are many scenarios where autopilots offer great benefits. Before you get too deep you’ll have to analyze your boating tendencies and determine if you’d get your money’s worth from an advanced autopilot system.
If you routinely make long-distance trips an autopilot can give you a break from constant steering and also hold a precise course better than you can—saving you both time and money. Another situation where autopilots can be extremely beneficial is when you’re shorthanded. An autopilot can keep the boat headed in a straight line so you can help set the spread or run to the cockpit to help an angler gaff and boat a trophy catch.
If your only interest in an autopilot is to tend the wheel for a few moments there are now a host of affordable units that are up for the task, but for those who opt for more you will be pleasantly surprised by the conveniences associated with the latest technology. Whether you are outfitting a new build or installing an autopilot on your existing vessel, today’s modern autopilots offer anglers a host of fishy features beyond typical straight line steering.
No matter the manufacturer, traditional autopilot systems are similar in how they provide precise steering, with most systems utilizing some form of heading sensor, centralized computer and drive unit. A compass provides the actual heading and the head unit receives the desired course. From here the microprocessor calculates the difference and instructs the rudder’s drive unit to alter course accordingly. In recent years technology has helped tremendously, with intelligent accelerometers and gyros resulting in improved performance in less than ideal sea conditions.
Interfaced with a GPS chartplotter, advanced autopilots can correct heading to compensate for wind, current or tide. Taking things a bit further, Furuno’s NavPilot family of innovative self-steering units utilizes revolutionary adaptive software that provides accurate and precise course keeping through a host of parameters. Furuno’s FishHunter is a unique feature that can perform five preset course patterns—square, zigzag, orbit, figure 8 and spiral—around a waypoint or MOB at a user selected distance.
Equally as important, Furuno’s NavPilot utilizes a self-learning and adaptive software algorithm, and plays the ultimate role in course-keeping capability. NavPilot dynamically adjusts and compensates for essential parameters during navigation, such as vessel speed, trim, tide and wind, weather and more. These parameters are stored in system memory and are continuously optimized to make the NavPilot smarter and more versatile.
Additionally, Furuno’s all-new Fantum Feedback software clears the path to a simplified installation, while also delivering enhanced steering control. With Fantum Feedback, NavPilot outboard installations no longer require use of a physical rudder feedback unit. This streamlined installation, combined with Furuno’s unique adaptive learning technology, provides unmatched outboard autopilot performance.
Another industry leader, Simrad’s innovative AP80 recently received Best Autopilot in the 2012 NMEA Product Awards. The more compact AP24 has a more affordable price point without sacrificing performance features and functionality. Like the more expensive AP80, the AP24 features Virtual Rudder Feedback, which eliminates the need for a fixed rudder position sensor. It also includes precise calibrating features that compensate for your vessel’s unique handling attributes in relation to the prevalent sea state.
Geonav is yet another major player in the game and their GSC 110 is quickly climbing the ranks as a trusted autopilot solution. The brain of this unit is the SCP110 Course Computer. Driven by a 32-bit processor, the computer uses proven control algorithms to optimize rudder movement based on data integrated from the fluxgate compass, GPS and built-in rate gyro. The waterproof control head displays bright color graphics and numeric indications of course, alarm, heading and rudder movements.
No matter what brand you choose you owe it to yourself to discover the benefits of an autopilot system. Before making a final purchasing decision be sure to speak with trained professionals about selection and installation aboard your particular vessel. Since reliable and effective steering is a crucial aspect to safe navigation it’s probably best to leave the installation to the professionals.