The convergence of technologies such as digital compasses, GPS, Sonar and chart plotters has been attempted by many marine companies over the years with mixed results. However, I don’t think any have hit the ball out of the park quite so far as Johnson Outdoors has with their new I-Pilot feature available on certain Minn Kota trolling motors. As someone who has been experimenting with blending different technologies to create accessible marine navigation solutions, I’m a big fan.
Let’s go back in time a bit first. Integrating automated GPS steering into a trolling motor had been tried before. Raymarine attempted to use GPS to automatically steer an electric trolling motor about ten years back, but abandoned the plan after test results demonstrated that the margin of error associated with the triangulation of GPS data acquired from satellites often confused the motor in that it didn’t know which way to turn next. One minute the calculated coordinates would placed the boat several meters left of the boat’s actual position, and seconds later indicate the boat was in another location altogether.
I remember all too clearly my first sea trials of a new talking GPS system for the blind I was beta testing. I created a personal “waypoint”, the launch site, and then proceeded to head 500 meters out towards the centre of the lake using a talking digital compass to maintain a course heading. When I then attempted to navigate back to the launch using the GPS system’s voice directions, I quickly grew concerned when I received one contrary set of instructions after another. The situation only grew worse the slower I propelled my Porta-Bote with the electric trolling motor. My teenage son, who was along with me for the ride, grew increasingly frustrated as I turned the boat one way and then the other. I did eventually figure out that I had to keep my speed above a certain minimum to ensure the boat travelled beyond the margin of error prior to the unit calculating our next position.
Lawrenc piloting the blind fishing boat
Minn Kota has created a highly responsive and accurate GPS-controlled electric trolling motor by incorporating their digital compass navigation technology (Auto-Pilot) into their I-Pilot solution. There’s little doubt that the accuracy of GPS antennas have improved over the years, but one needs to either use multiple antennas, such as in the case of farm machinery, or take the average of multiple individual readings from a single stationary receiver, to calculate a precise position. Since there’s only the one GPS receiver built into the trolling motor head and since it’s unlikely that a boat can maintain a fixed position long enough to calculate an average, encorporating Minn Kota’s already proven digital compass technology into the I-Pilot platform made a lot of sense.
Further under-scoring Minn Kota’s brilliance by combining the two technologies is I-Pilot’s ability to know which way the trolling motor is pointed at all times. GPS on its own can only calculate which way a boat or trolling motor is pointed once it has travelled a certain distance an can compare it’s present location with where it had been moments before. Since a digital compass is located within the head of the Minn Kota trolling motor, this key information is instantly available to I-Pilot.
When the I-Pilot begins steering the boat along a course, it does this in two ways. First, it either throws down new or reads existing GPS coordinates that it wants to navigate to, and second it takes a compass reading so it knows which way the head of the trolling motor is pointed in relation to these GPS waypoints. It’s only through the use of the digital compass that the I-Pilot knows immediately which way to turn the motor to assume a course. The compass continues to play a role in maintaining an accurate course heading between GPS waypoints allowing the boater to travel as fast or slow as he/she wants. Needless to say, all of this has added up to an absolute killer ap for Minn Kota.
Minn Kota’s not the only marine electronic company out there who has created an auto pilot type device. Garmin, Raymarine and others offer solutions to fishers that link their chart plotters to a device that either assumes control over turning the steering wheel of the boat, or pulling and pushing on a tiller handle. These systems offer real advantages in that the boater can actually monitor visually on the chart plotter’s display, not only where the boat has been, but where it will go next. It also makes it possible to create a route on a chart plotter and then have the auto pilot device steer the course. Other features such as turning figure eights over a selected location while trolling is possible, but none have the Minn Kota’s I-Pilot’s capability of knowing exactly which way the boat is pointed prior to getting underway, and none offer the accuracy Minn Kota can offer thanks to their blending of GPS and digital compass technology.
Some years back Motor Guide was also experimenting with auto-pilot trolling motors. For several years they offered a solution that combined auto-pilot steerage with depth sounder readings. The boater could actually request the Motor Guide to steer a course based on a pre-determined depth. The goal was to allow the Motor Guide to automatically follow a specific depth contour. Unfortunately, Motor Guide dropped the technology after just a few short years following their acquisition by Brunswick Marine.
The next step for Minn Kota is to link their Humminbird chart plotter / sounders to the Minn Kota I-Pilot. Both are owned by Johnson Outdoors. Minn Kota already has perfected the wireless communication component of the solution with their “Co Pilot” wireless remote technology, which was integrated into the I-Pilot’s remote. This would allow boaters to either create or select existing tracks on their Humminbird displays, or select a specific depth or contour to follow, and then have steering coordinates fed to the I-Pilot wirelessly. Matched with their side imaging and down imaging technology, this could make for an excellent up-grade.
I-Pilot already has the option of saving up to three 2-mile long tracks and three “Spot-Lock” (anchorages) in the head of the I-Pilot motor itself, but their engineers have set a 1/4 mile limit to the distance an I-Pilot will navigate on its own to return to a pre-saved track or anchor point. I guess they felt that since the boater had no way of knowing what the return route might entail, since I-Pilot offers no actual display of a map with the pre-recorded routes and anchor points, and since I-Pilot isn’t pre-loaded with Navionic maps, a boater could easily find oneself attempting to cross islands or points of land. Obviously, this can’t happen with a pre-recorded route as the I-Pilot already knows it safely negotiated the GPS coordinates that it holds in its memory.
I-Pilot isn’t perfect. For example, when you direct I-Pilot to return to a pre-saved track, it knows to navigate to the nearest recorded waypoint along that track. It’s important to understand that a route isn’t a continuous line of GPS coordinates, but more a “connect-the-dots” affair of a series of waypoints. Thus, if the closest dot, or GPS waypoint, is located behind the boat, but you know the course you want the boat to follow lies ahead, I-Pilot will first take the boat back to the nearest waypoint, and then execute a 180 degree turn to commence navigating the track in the direction you requested.
Did I already mention I-Pilot’s ability to hold the boat on a selected location to within five feet? Ideal for drop-shotting or vertical jigging.
It also has two options for navigating in a straight line. The “Auto-Pilot” option uses the digital compass, and the new “Advanced Auto-Pilot” option which uses a combination of digital compass and GPS coordinates. The “Advantage” option addresses the issue of drift, which the compass-based Auto-Pilot can’t fully compensate for on its own. Minn Kota decided to offer both options in their I-Pilot as the constant course corrections required to hold a straight GPS course when encountering strong cross winds or currents can place more load on the trolling motor batteries than the boater may want to expend. The compass-based Auto-Pilot feature is also ideal for keeping the bow pointed in a desired general direction to execute a controlled drift or when setting out a trolling spread.
Minn Kota engineers were definitely thinking multi-sensory when they designed the I-Pilot’s human / machine interface. Not only are the buttons on the wireless remote actual tactile representations of different icons, there are tones that can be activated to announce the different features. There’s also a small display on the remote. Who knows, maybe voice output will be included next; similar to that found on GPS systems for motor vehicles. When it happens I’ll be the first to volunteer as a beta tester.
Lawrence, daughter Lilly and Maestro at exhibit