Watercraft Innovations Parallel Automotive Developments

By Amy Goetzman | February 27, 2018

More electronics in boats of all sizes means more opportunity for connector suppliers who can provide reliable, waterproof components.

We can’t stop watching the evolution of the automotive technologies. The electric drivetrain, autonomous vehicles, and a new crop of enhanced navigation, entertainment, and safety features are unquestionably exciting developments. But while all eyes are on the road ahead, a similar transformation is happening out on the water.

Whether they are sailing the high seas or cruising local lakes, watercraft of all sizes are being designed or upgraded to rely more heavily upon electronic systems. Many of the same innovations that are changing the automotive world are also taking to the water. All of these technologies depend on reliable interconnects, and the demand for harsh-environment, waterproof components is growing as boat operators look to a high-tech future.

Common systems in watercraft that include connectors and cable assemblies range from lighting, communication, and navigation systems to trolling motor, energy-harvesting, and water purification equipment. Components must provide waterproof connections to perform in the aquatic environment and also meet the needs of the individual applications, such as supporting high-data speeds needed to communicate with satellites and land-based centers.

The National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA), with assistance from the Marine Electronics Industry, approves cables and connectors for use in marine applications. The NMEA 2000 specification tests components for reliability, interconnection, and safety. Testing includes water and oil resistance, fire protection, shielding, impedance, propagation, and attenuation. It is the industry standard for data communications on shipboard electronic devices. The NMEA 2000 specification for cables and connectors is based on the industrial automation Open DeviceNet New Vendor Association (ODVA) physical layer specification. In 2017, NMEA validated test results for NMEA 2000 requirements for 146 new products. Manufacturers who offer NMEA 2000 connector products include Molex, Amphenol, SingatronODS, and Ancor.

New equipment categories are becoming involved with NMEA 2000, said Steve Spitzer, director of standards, National Marine Electronics Association.

“We are looking at new audio and entertainment systems that allow users to control playlists from any location on the boat. The Audio Entertainment Working Group is also involved, so there can be coordination between lighting and underwater lighting with music,” he said. “Windlass controls and thruster controls are another new area of interest. Messages are being developed and will probably be published in the next released of the NMEA 2000 specification.”

NMEA is also developing messages for all types of controls for lighting, including underwater lighting. Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) is another fast growth category.  The International Telecommunications Union updated their requirements. “The NMEA AIS Working Group is updating old messages and developing new messages to meet these new requirements, including Man Overboard (MOB) capability,” said Spitzer.

Another classification system that guides waterproof connectors is IP67 and IP68, which measure ingress protection against water and other liquids or solids. IP67-rated connectors are protected from dust and capable of withstanding water immersion up to 1 meter for 30 minutes. IP68-rated connectors can withstand continuous immersion under a manufacturer’s specified pressure. IP-rated connectors are available from suppliers including TE Connectivity, Fischer, Xmultiple, RAYMO, and many more.


Molex designs a wide range of products for marine applications, including open standard cables, cable assemblies, connectors, terminators, and power products.



ODS offers M series, USB, RJ, and circular connectors and cable assemblies that meet marine requirements with sealing levels of IP67 or IP68.



Ancor’s DrySeal watertight double connector is sealed against saltwater spray and severe vibration.



“Xmultiple also offers a contact gel, X-Sealant Gel, that provides an additional layer of protection to environmentally sealed contacts,” said Mike Basowski, VP of sales at Xmultiple, which offers a range of harsh-environment connectors and other components suitable for outdoor applications such as GPS units, antennae, and lighting.

Three key trends are driving demand for marine-grade electronic components.

Unmanned Vessels

Autonomous cars are being tested in several cities right now, so it’s no surprise that autonomous boats are also in the works. Within the next three years, experts say we’ll have unmanned container ships crossing the ocean, as well as automated ferries and workboats. In 2017, Rolls Royce demonstrated a remote-controlled tugboat in Copenhagen and Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics tested an unmanned workboat in the Boston Harbor and signed a deal to install the world’s first autonomous system on a commercial containership.

Like self-driving cars, unmanned boats rely on sensors to perceive other vessels, landforms, and obstacles. These sensors send information to an AI processing system that issues navigational commands to the boat. The Sea Machines’ autonomous control system can be integrated with existing electronic control systems or machines with analog controls to reduce or eliminate the need for onboard personnel. The system consists of a processing center with steering and propulsion controls; a navigational sensing network that includes cameras, sonar, and radar; radio, Wi-Fi, and high-bandwidth communications antennas; and land and onboard control interfaces.

New Energy Systems 

Standard gas engines are not suitable for most boats, so diesel is the dominant fuel for watercraft engines and generators. However, new developments in electric drive systems parallel automotive advancements. Fischer Panda’s electric drive system is a quiet, efficient, emissions-free system that offers low-operating costs and high-maneuverability with a dynamic, permanent-magnet motor.

Mastervolt, a marine battery manufacturer, is focusing on new lithium sulfur (Li-S) battery technology and anticipates that, within five years, an affordable battery that provides a range past 80 miles at modest speeds will be available. More exciting: Mercedes AMG’s electric propulsion motor achieves 2,220 horsepower with the help of four liquid-cooled, lithium-ion batteries that provide 240 kilowatt-hours of storage and speeds of 120 miles per hour.

Solar arrays can further extend the range of electric engines by harvesting power on the go. Small pleasure craft can already be powered exclusively with stored solar energy. Now, the technology is expanding to larger craft. A solar-electric passenger ferry launched in the Netherlands in November 2017. Bali is also testing a 100% solar ferry after noting the dire impact diesel pollution from tourist ferries had on its signature coral reefs.

High-Tech Instrumentation

A new generation of marine instruments relies heavily on electronics. New communication devices, safety systems, navigational tools, entertainment systems, and fish-finding devices enhance the experience for pleasure cruisers and commercial operations alike. New transducers can precisely measure depth, speed, and temperature, and communicate that information back to the operator. Compact ultrasonic weather stations can measure wind speed and direction, air and wind chill temperatures, and barometric pressure, and deliver that information to an app. Streaming media players, portable stereos, and GPS devices also echo those we’ve seen in automotive environments.

The connectors that enable these systems may migrate over from land-based applications, but even those designed for cockpit and interior installations will need to withstand some degree of water ingress. Amphibious connectors like ITT Cannon’s Trident Connector System can work in a variety of transportation and marine applications. Ultimately, harsh-environment connectors for marine and automotive connectors share most of the same requirements and serve many of the same applications. Those that are designed for automotive use are prepared to resist occasional wet weather conditions. Those destined for marine life are ready for it every day.


Amy Goetzman
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