The Boat PC – a marine based Raspberry Pi project

Motivation

In late 2015 I was doing my usual head-scratching about what gifts to get various family members for the holiday season. My wife mentioned making something electronic for my father-in-laws boat, and after a few hours of collecting thoughts came up with an idea:

  • A Raspberry Pi computer, which could be powered off the boats 12v batteries.
  • This computer would have sensors which made sense on a boat. Certainly GPS.
  • I’d have some software which collated the sensor data and displayed it nicely.
  • This could plug into the onboard TV using HDMI.
  • It would all be put into a suitable enclosure.

Excellent – a plan. I expected the hardware part to be easy, the enclosure part fairly straightforward, and the software part to be an absolute disaster. I started searching for an already-existing project to take care of the software side of things.

That’s when I came upon a project called OpenPlotter. It’s a fully-featured linux distribution for Raspberry Pi, specifically for use on a boat, and includes the relevant software for calibrating, collating and transforming data from various sensors into a form that can be used practically. I’ve got to be honest here – OpenPlotter is solid, does exactly what it advertises, and very simple for someone familiar with RPi/Linux to set up and use.

After firmly deciding on OpenPlotter for the software, and knowing I’d be using an old Raspberry Pi 2 I had collecting dust, I looked at what hardware OpenPlotter supported. The list is fairly long, and gave me ideas I had not thought of previously – for example using a USB DVB-T television dongle as an AIS receiver with Software Defined Radio (SDR), allowing real-time data of nearby ships to be displayed. MarineTraffic uses this AIS data, but of course on a boat you can’t rely on an internet connection to pull data from – it’s much better to get the data directly from the VHF signals.

In addition to AIS and GPS, I’d add an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU – basically an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer in one) in the form of an InvenSense MPU-9150, and also a USB to RS422 converter. RS422 is specified as part of the protocol standard for NMEA 0183, which in turn is the communication specification used in marine electronics. Supporting input and output of direct NMEA using RS422 would allow for some extendibility, for example depth sensors that are already present can feed data into OpenPlotter using this port.

After going and purchasing all of these sensors, I realised that actually using the TV inside the boat isn’t going to be useful, as it’s not visible from the helm. Thankfully, OpenPlotter allows for headless operation, and will automatically set up a WiFi hotspot so you can connect a phone/tablet to the Raspberry Pi and control it using VNC or other software.

The Build

So, to clarify, all the hardware gubbins required:

  • Raspberry Pi 2
  • Invensense MPU9150 board
  • RTL2832U DVB-T USB
  • USB to RS422 Converter
  • USB GPS module
  • USB wifi module

Of course, we need some associated utility to make this into an actual device;

  • 12V to 5V power converter
  • Power switch & connector
  • Status LED
  • Enclosure

When I’ve done projects in the past (the biggest one being PiOnTheWall from years ago), I spend a significant amount searching for the right enclosure to put the hardware in. It’s not just a case of going and getting something that’s big enough to fit the contents, you need to know how thick the sides are, what kind of plastic is it, are there PCB standoffs included, are there vent holes?

After several days, I came up with the following which I got off ebay.

enclosure

I knew already the RTL2832U SDR dongle could run quite hot – so ventilation holes were a must. It’s the hottest part of this hardare, easily 60C+, whilst the Broadcom SOC of the Raspberry Pi will have to be working fairly hard to hit 45C. I did not plan to heatsink anything, and in the end it works fine without them. I did make a concious choice though to have the SDR board at the highest point in the enclosure, closest to the vents.

The design was simple – switch and status LED at the front, RS422, SDR antenna, Power In and Raspberry Pi Mini USB/HDMI/Audio out at the back. I removed all plastic covers from any USB devices, as they just bloated the inside, and I knew removing USB connectors would be a requirement. Laying out the components, I found one which worked well.

layout_annotated

The Raspberry pi would be put on metal standoffs – I used some spares I had from various PC motherboards and cases. I just drilled straight though the bottom of the plastic case with a bit size such that the thread would drive into the plastic.

In my previous Raspberry Pi project I butchered the board, and I’m pleased to say the only thing I had to do in this instance was make the fixing holes on the PCB slightly larger to accommodate the screws for standoffs.

rpi_drill

standoffs

The GPS and Wifi modules remained as dongles, simply connected into one dual header on the Raspberry Pi. To aid fitting all the boards into the enclosure, the male USB connector of the RTL2832U SDR dongle was placed on a ribbon cable. Additionally, the miniUSB cable for the RS422 converter was made small enough to fit in the limited space available. These two boards were physically fixed to the rear panel via bolts, and in the SDR boards case, a little shelf made from spare plastic.

422_sdr_cables

422_sdr_affixed

I’m not very good at making good panel openings, so sadly my HDMI and microUSB ports are very poor. At least they are at the back, where nobody should be able to see them 😉

Internally, all that was left was to connect the 12V->5V DC-DC converter to the Pi, put a power switch inline with the input 12v Power jack, attach the LED to 3v3 (there is a resistor in the LED leg heat-shrink), and fix the rest of it down with the same standoffs. It ended up looking fairly neat and tidy.

complete_internals

For those wondering, I connected the 5V output from the DC-DC converter direct to the 5V rail of the Pi. It bypasses some input protection which exists on the miniUSB power input. For me this is okay, I hoped it would allow the SDR USB dongle to draw more power than is ‘technically’ allowed from the onboard USB ports. I knew that was an issue back in the Raspberry Pi 1 days, and couldn’t remember if that was still the case with RPi 2.

The final rear panel:

complete_rear

The front of the enclosure, unit powered and closed.

complete_front

You will notice the USB socket on the front; I thought it could be useful to trickle charge phones or the tablet that would connect through WiFi to offer controls. I connected the unit to an HDMI monitor to do first-time OpenPlotter setup, making sure the sensors worked, and then switched it into headless mode, with VNC and NMEA 0183 output over it’s own ad-hoc WiFi hotspot.

Testing on the boat!

One thing that I could not test at home and needed to do on the boat was calibrate and test the AIS Receiver. There was a long gap between the hardware being “complete” in summer 2016, and testing it on-board in spring 2017.

AIS runs off VHF frequencies of around 162MHz, a wavelength of 1.85 meters. The boat has a marine antenna already which will work fine, but when I brought the device for testing did not have the correct connector to interface with the SDR dongle.

antenna

Because of this, I made a quick and dirty 1-wire, quarter wavelength antenna. I used a good quality coax, with one end exposing only the inner core to a length of 46 centimeters. I then hooked this around a bit of the boat outside. It wouldn’t get long range, but hoped I’d get some ship signatures in the marina – and it did! After following the calibration instructions on the OpenPlotter guide, I rebooted and after a few minutes the tablet (now connected to the RPi using wifi) displayed the following:

tablet_ais

We used an Android app called SailTracker which takes the collated NMEA datastream and displays the data in an appropriate format. There are several paid apps that come complete with nautical maps, which is neat.

installed

And that’s it! All installed, wired into the 12v, and also now using the VHF antenna at the top of the mast. I’m quite proud with how this one turned out, and I’m very impressed with the OpenPlotter distribution for allowing this project to work as well as it did.

What I’d change

There are 3 things I’d change if I was to do this again:

  1. Changing the front panel LED to RGB, and have it a real status LED rather than power. For example,
    • solid blue: OS booting,
    • flashing green: OpenPlotter starting services,
    • solid green: WiFi hotspot up,
    • red would be an error condition.
  2. Mounting the SDR dongle further in, allowing me to wire up the antenna input from the onboard mini MCX to a PL259 VHF connector on the rear panel. This would have eliminated some of the external complexity of needing various converters.
  3. I’d have a large cover over the microUSB/HDMI/audio raspberry pi connectors, as they are really only needed for debug, and it would have stopped me from making the messy cuts I did 🙂

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or queries feel free to contact me at @domipheus.