The Future of Marine Electronics: A MidWest Outdoors Exclusive with Industry Insider

It’s been a while since the bombshell days when Carl Lowrance developed the first sonar units for use on family fishing boats, and today’s sonar and GPS units do things, at an affordable price, that Mr. Lowrance could scarcely have dreamt.

So where are we, in the evolution of electronic technology for use in recreational fishing? And what will the next years bring? Are boat owners slower to adopt new technology than landlubbers? Interesting questions, which we brought to Navico’s Deputy CEO, Marc Jourlait.

We got interesting answers…

MidWest Outdoors: Sonar technology and displays have improved significantly in the recent past, and so has GPS technology—so much so that you might say fishing is a different experience for those who use the latest units. To what degree have advances in consumer electronics influenced these developments? Will the pace of evolution continue, or are we nearing a plateau? And given that impressive units are more affordable these days, why do you think so many anglers still don’t use them?

Marc Jourlait: Let’s tackle the latter question first. While almost everyone has a smartphone and probably a tablet, too, the majority of boats today still don’t have marine electronics aboard. There are so many cost-effective units on the market that it likely isn’t price alone keeping people from adopting the technology. More likely, it is a matter of approachability and awareness. While professionals at every major fishing tournament use the latest technology on their boats, the majority of boaters still just don’t know what modern units can do for them, or they labor under old notions of complicated devices and incomprehensible displays. And so it becomes, in part, a matter of education and ensuring a seamless transition from the technology boaters live with ashore every day, to the technology on their boats.

This is why marine electronics companies are focused on making new units as easy to use as possible. Consider that most phones and computers don’t even come with user manuals now. People pick them up and, mostly, just know how they work. Developing an easy-to-use user interface is the key, and consumers drive this innovation. Marine electronics is rapidly closing the gap to operate the same way. In fact, across all our brands at Navico—Lowrance, B&G and Simrad—that is one of our main development thrusts.

In the past, a boater had to be an expert on the technology, someone who used it regularly, in order to interpret and understand a fish finder. We are at a point now that novices can use a fish finder. While a lot of the technological innovation has been “under the hood,” so to speak—from advances in transducers, CPU processing power and digital signal processing—the user interface has also improved drastically. The average boater is used to pinch-to-zoom and touch-screen menus from their smartphones and tablets, and they want their chartplotters and fish finder displays to work the same way.

MWO: How much of recent innovation in marine sonar and GPS has been driven by competition between and among manufacturers?

Jourlait: Like radar, recreational sonar technology remained largely unchanged for decades. It was tried-and-tested technology. That changed when competition among industry leading companies like Lowrance, Humminbird and Garmin really heated up. This healthy competition has fueled amazing advances. Some of the most striking technologies have appeared on units in the very recent past, such as StructureScan 3D we developed at Lowrance. It gives you an amazing 3D view of what’s under your boat, making it easier than ever to pick out fish holding tight to structural elements, and to see exactly how a structure is shaped so you can be more precise with your presentations. It makes fishing more fun, more interesting.

MWO: So what does the future hold? Are marine electronics going to continue to get faster and more realistic, with even larger screens? We hear speculation that “we ain’t seen ‘nothin yet,” that new units might be able to show us things like temperature shifts, algae content, bottom composition, direction and strength of currents, even species of fish being identified on the display. Help us see what might be coming.

Jourlait: While prices might continue to come down somewhat, customer demands and desires will have them choosing bigger screens on units with more new features. Also, it’s worth remembering that marine electronics are purpose-built and there is an unavoidable cost to that, with needs such as making the units waterproof, and making the displays easy to see in bright sunlight.

Even today, if a boater has a chartplotter on the boat, it is expected to work without fail in heat and cold; it has to be impervious to vibration and shock; it must be visible at night and in direct sunlight, and it even has to work when soaking wet or covered in salt or fish guts. We don’t expect that from our mobile phone or tablet. That’s why, when people say mobile devices will replace marine electronics, it seems unlikely. They are a perfect accompaniment, what I might call a great sidekick accessory, but will likely never replace them. Marine electronics are mission-critical devices. If a driver uses a smartphone to navigate in a car and the phone battery dies, that’s inconvenient. However, if the electronics stop functioning on a boat, the boater won’t see a ship in the fog, won’t know how deep the water is, won’t know where he is, and might not get home. These are lifesaving devices, and compromise on that is unthinkable.

It does seem that the real direction the industry is going is toward “smart boats.” We already have smart cars, smart homes, smart watches, etc. Everything is producing data that are getting pushed to the cloud and made accessible on the Internet. Improved integration and connectivity will be the next steps in the marriage of boats and marine electronics. Boats will become aware. Everything from GPS and position data to telematics and engine data will be integrated for a smoother boating experience, starting before you get to the water, during the time you’re out there, and reviewing the trip after you get back home. This extremely useful information will become accessible to the boater anywhere, from the cloud.

Smart, connected boats that make boating easier, more fun, and safer is the ultimate goal. This is the clear path for the marine electronics industry.