Last month I wrote an article about my first impressions using the new Vesper Cortex AIS / VHF solution. As promised, I am following up with a second article to focus on what might seem like a secondary feature but in fact may be one of the most compelling reasons to consider a Cortex system. That feature is vessel monitoring.
What do we mean by vessel monitoring? A remote vessel monitoring system allows you to access, view and even control the systems on your vessel from remote locations using cellular modem technology. In other words, we can run an app on our phone and see how things are doing on our boat from literally anywhere we have a cellular or WiFi connection and we can get alerts when something is not right. For example, you can get alerts if your boat drags at anchor, or your bilge pump comes on, or your battery is below a certain voltage, or the wind increases beyond a certain limit or your boat is in water that is too shallow. Plus, you can see the exact location of your boat even if it is outside AIS receiving range. You can even connect relays that can be controlled remotely to do things like turn on lights.
Vessel monitoring is not new and there are many dedicated monitoring solutions out there. But these separate systems tend to be fairly expensive and it is just one more device to install, wire, setup, learn and manage on your boat plus you typically need to subscribe to a monthly service. Some boaters use AIS services such as MarineTraffic to track their boat but in order for this to work, you have to be within range of a MarineTraffic receiving station and of course those solutions do not have visibility into the systems on your boat. Vesper is the first company to combine robust vessel monitoring with an AIS transceiver and VHF transceiver all in one unit.
This new technology is enabled with a unique set of building blocks:
- AIS transceiver: The Vesper Cortex M1 hub includes a 5-watt, SOTDMA Class B AIS transceiver aka transponder. This of course means the system can receive information from nearby AIS targets and can send out your information to other AIS-equipped vessels. As part of this system, the Cortex includes a modern multi-protocol GPS receiver, so the system always knows exactly where it is and therefore where your boat is.
- NMEA gateway: Vesper was the first company to incorporate a NMEA multiplexer and gateway in its smartAIS transponders such as the XB-8000. This is very popular for combining additional data on your NMEA 0183 or NMEA 2000 interfaces (such as depth, wind, temperature) with the native AIS and GPS data and having all that information available to applications via a WiFi interface. The result being popular apps such as iNavX or TimeZero iBoat could use and display not only AIS information but also other information such as depth, wind speed and direction and more. For more information on the value of this capability see my article here.
Now with Cortex, Vesper have gone a step further and allow us to use that information for remote monitoring. This means the Vesper monitoring system knows about things like depth (if depth information is present on one of your NMEA interfaces) and can pass that information on to the monitoring system.
- Anchor Watch: Another unique feature Vesper included with the smartAIS product line was the AIS anchor alarm capability. Not only could you set up an alarm to wake you up at night if an AIS vessel was bearing down on you in your anchorage, you could also set up alarms if you drifted outside of a preset radius around the anchor or if you drifted into shallow water. Vesper has included this functionality in Cortex and has now extended it to enable a remote anchor alarm feature. This means you could anchor your boat in a harbor, dinghy into the town for a meal knowing that if your anchor starts to drag, you will get a real-time notification on your phone.
- Custom sensors and relays: In addition to including the standard NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 marine device interfaces, the Cortex hub also includes hard-wired GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) interfaces for up to five sensors. Two of these can be control interfaces for remotely turning on a relay. For example, these could be connected to a door opening or motion sensor, a high water or bilge pump activation sensor or a smoke or heat sensor. Plus, the Cortex itself includes its own heading, barometric and battery voltage sensors – all of which are also available to the monitoring system. Before the sensors can be used by Cortex, you’ll want to wire up each sensor. This is covered in the Cortex Hub (M1 & V1) Install Manual. For example, here is the wiring for hooking up a sensor interface to your bilge pump.
- Cellular modem: So, with all of this great data, how does the Cortex communicate with the outside world? Cortex includes an integrated LTE cellular modem preconfigured with its own integrated SIM card. The system automatically connects to the cloud, ready to be used with the Vesper Monitor app. When I setup my Cortex system, it automatically connected to the local AT&T cellular network. It should be noted that you don’t need a data plan from AT&T or anyone else. The “plan” is managed by Vesper.
- Vesper Monitor app: Vesper have two mobile apps for the Cortex system. The Cortex Onboard app uses WiFi to communicate with Cortex while you are onboard your vessel. Other apps such as Navionics, iNavX, TimeZero iBoat can also be used over the WiFi interface and take advantage of the datastream with AIS, GPS and other instrument data. The Onboard app or a Cortex H1 or H1P handset is used to setup the functionality for each of the GPIO interfaces. You’ll then want to go to the main menu on the top left, then follow the instructions here to configure the name for the sensor, type etc. The manual guides you through the steps. Repeat the steps for each GPIO sensor you want to setup for monitoring.
Once your Cortex is setup with your sensors, you will use the Cortex Monitor app to view the status of the various sensors on your vessel as well as control switches connected to relays if you have them. The Monitor app is available for iOS and Android devices. On first use, you will be asked to create an account with Vesper and associate your Cortex with your account in the Vesper cloud. Vesper is currently providing free access to its full monitoring subscription service for 90 days. This will give you plenty of time to try out the service and decide if you want to sign up for the full service.
One thing you will want to do once you have the Monitor app up and running is to set some alarms. For example, I have set up alarms to go off if my boat power voltage drops below 11.5vDC as well as a notification if my bilge pump comes on.
Another screen on the monitor app shows your vessel’s current position on a map. Another screen allows you view your position relative to a dropped anchor if you have previously set the anchor watch with the Onboard app. Again, you can get an alert on your phone or smart watch if your boat drifts outside of the radius you have set up with the anchor watch function.
- Vesper monitoring subscription: The final component in the Vesper Cortex monitoring system is the Vesper cloud service. To access the remote monitoring features on your Cortex, you will need to sign up for a Cortex Monitoring Plan. There are currently two plans available in the US and Canada:
LITE: The LITE plan is free and allows you to get twice daily updates on the Cortex Monitor App. You are also able to see Alarms from within the Cortex Monitor App.
PREMIUM: The PREMIUM plan costs US$19.95 monthly or US$159.95 for an annual subscription for US and Canadian customers. This plan allows you to see real-time updates on the Cortex Monitor App and receive instant alarms. You can also remotely control onboard devices if you have setup relays. The remote Anchor Watch is available as well as geofencing for notifications if your boat moves outside a preset zone. Currently Vesper is offering a 90-day free trial for the PREMIUM plan. Once you try it and understand all the capabilities, it is hard to imagine not having this feature.
A few final notes to ensure your Vesper Cortex monitoring system works well:
- Obviously for the monitoring system to work, it needs to be on full time. On my boat I set up a separate power circuit just for the Cortex, the NMEA 2000 network and my wind and depth sensors. I leave that on when I am away from the boat but turn other electronics off.
- Be sure to have a direct heavy gauge wire connection to the ship’s ground from ground wire on your Cortex. I recommend this for any radio.
- The Cortex needs a connection to its chosen cellular network in order to communicate with the Vesper cloud. If your Cortex is buried in the bowels of your electronics locker and has lots of wires above or around the system, the cellular connection could be severely degraded. The Cortex has an antenna port for connecting an external cellular antenna. Consider using an external cellular antenna if needed.
- The same recommendation goes for the external GPS and WiFi antennas. In my experience GPS signals do not reliably shoot through wood or metal objects. If you install your GPS inside the cabin, mount it as close as possible to the underside of a fiberglass deck and make sure there are no metal objects directly above. Likewise, the included external WiFi antenna should be used in a vertical orientation with as few nearby obstructions as possible.
- You don’t need to be transmitting via AIS in order for the monitoring to work. I generally recommend turning your AIS transmitter off when you are in port and away from the boat. Folks who leave their AIS transmitter on all the time are contributing to the failure of AIS for those on the water. Recently I was on the water near Seattle and I was picking up over 400 AIS targets – a vast majority were boats in nearby marinas. The result was the app I was using kept crashing and even my chartplotter ground to a halt. For your Cortex monitoring system, put the AIS in “Stealth Mode” if you can when your boat is in its home slip. If you want to know where your boat is, the Monitor app has a screen to show your exact position in real time.
- The Monitor app works while you are on the boat as well, assuming you are in cell range for the Cortex cell connection and your mobile device has connectivity to the Internet (cellular or WiFi). This can be very handy for getting alerts while onboard for sensors that otherwise could go unnoticed. See the postscript at the end of this article for a real-world example.
In my opinion, the Cortex Monitoring system is probably one of the most valuable features of this new product. No other AIS system has this capability and having AIS, VHF and monitoring all in one system simplifies installation. I have heard feedback from some customers that Cortex is expensive when compared to other SOTDMA AIS transponders however given Cortex is also a DSC-enabled VHF radio with the possibility for multiple stations and has a full-time remote monitoring system built in, it is actually a bargain and well worth the investment. More information on Cortex Remote Vessel Monitoring and Control can be found here.
As always, feel free to post questions or comments in the comment section below.
Did Cortex just save my boat?
Over the years I have heard countless stories from customers about how AIS helped to prevent a collision with another vessel. For those boat owners, AIS has become an indispensable safety tool.
Now I can add my own story regarding the value of Cortex as a monitoring solution. This is a true story.
I have Cortex set up on our Hunter Passage 420 sailboat, Naiad. I have wired the Cortex to my bilge pump as well as adding a high-water float switch in the bilge. I have setup alerts so that I get notified via the Cortex Monitor app if my bilge pump comes on or if the water in my bilge reaches a certain level.
We were motoring to one of our favorite anchorages this past weekend when I get an alert that the bilge pump has come on and then switched off. At first, I was not that surprised as my bilge pump will sometimes come on. But then it came on again a minute later and I got another alert on my smart watch. OK – that was not expected. I checked the Monitor app on my phone and yes, the bilge pump had cycled twice in the last couple of minutes. And then it cycled again. Was this a software glitch or was I really taking on water?
My wife took over at the helm and I went below to check the bilge. Yes, there was water in the bilge and the pump came on again. The pump seemed to be keeping up with whatever was causing the leak, but I was clearly taking on water. My next check was to look at the shaft seal. That looked ok but I could see water sloshing in the pan under the engine. That was not normal. Upon looking in the engine compartment, I could see water streaming out of one of the hoses. We slowed to an idle and the water also slowed to a trickle. Upon closer inspection, I found that one of the hose clamps had failed and the raw water intake hose was leaking. It was an easy fix to install a new hose clamp and with that done, the leak was fixed. So, the total time from the first alert to fixing the issue was less than 10 minutes. Yet, if I had not received an alert from Cortex Monitor, how long would the failure have gone unnoticed? I don’t normally hear the bilge pump running if the engine is running so the leak may have continued for the rest of our journey and not only continued to spray the engine room with saltwater but would have continued to fill my bilge. Would my bilge pump have been able to keep up? These are situations that terrify boaters. This is a case where I think Cortex just saved the boat from substantial damage. I now consider these monitoring features to be indispensable safety tools.
One more short story. We had a big windstorm last week and the storm was knocking out power all around Puget Sound. Our home still had power but neighbors across the water lost their power. I was curious what the situation looked like at the marina where I keep the boat. I used to Cortex Monitor app to check the wind there. It was only blowing about 15 knots so no big deal. I was also able to see if I still had shore power. Yes, my voltage level was steady and had not dropped as I would have expected if I was only running on battery power. One benefit of the Monitor app is you can see changes over time so I could look at the voltage levels over the past 24 hours and see that there were no unexpected drops. I also have an alert setup with the app to notify me if my battery voltage drops below 11.5 volts DC. Using Cortex, I was able to see from my home that all my boat systems were normal during the storm.