Wednesday, 13 July 2016


Open Up

OpenPloter is not the first "marine OS"  to assemble a variety of boating-related software into a single downloadable image:  Xinutop and Navigatrix are both x86 GNU/Linux distributions which provide OpenCPN and other free marine software pre-configured.  OpenPlotter, which has gained a lot of friends in the past year, differs from those in a number of ways.  Most obviously it is aimed at ARM systems, notably the Raspberry Pi, and rather than being simply a collection of useful software it provides sailors with an interest in DIY a platform on which to build an integrated boat electronics system using the plethora of cheap sensors that arena available.  Not just a collection of 3rd party software, OpenPlotter adds a GUI to provide unified management of many of its functions, making command-line and configuration-file oriented Linux/UNIX software like kplex more accessible to a wider range of DIY-ers. Additionally you can purchase tested hardware through the OpenPlotter web site.

Roberto Serrano, OpenPlotter's lead developer, kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the project...

What does "sailoog" (the name of your website and pseudonym you post under) mean?

I would like to tell a nice story here about some recondite indigenous language or something similar but I cannot. I just nicked it from one of our previous and unsuccessful projects, a marine blog system. Sailblog was taken so, playing with logos and letters we said Hey, the Internet is full of double “o”s (google, yahoo, moodle, joomla…) so let’s be cool!

Why did you start the openplotter project?

The financial crisis hit hard in southern Europe and took us our jobs, our homes, our boats and our dreams. I am from Catalonia and the only option was to go abroad to work so I started OpenPlotter project just as an exercise to learn English, improve my skills programming in languages like python and use some tools like github. But I soon realized that I was dealing with something with real projection and maybe a way to hit back.

We believe we should be able to equip even small boats with high quality, affordable and robust technology without having to rely on the big corporations

Governments and proprietary technologies no longer have more guarantees than real democracy and open-source technologies so we could say that my main motivations on this project are ethical and political but I can not speak by the others, perhaps we could even disagree but who cares? This is open, this is free, and above all this is fun.\

How many people work on putting openplotter together?

It is hard to say. A lot of people contribute to software or hardware while they are configuring the system on their boats and then disappear as the sailing season starts but there is also an army of loyal beta-testers who follow the development closely. To be more precise, we are currently a group of two people coding and three people developing and testing hardware.

Navigatrix fulfils a similar function to openplotter but on a different platform. Are you continuing to develop navigatrix, are you putting all your effort into openplotter, or do you intend to combine the two into one multi-platform project?

Despite having contributed to Navigatrix development in different ways for a long time, I can not consider myself part of the development team. Navigatrix has its own course and still a long road ahead.

I think both are complementary projects. Navigatrix is focused on running all the available nautical software on any PC computer. Its main feature is portability. You can sail on any ship with your Navigatrix laptop and you can even sail with Navigatrix installed on a USB stick in your pocket and run it on any computer on board. However OpenPlotter is focused on hardware, permanent installations and enhanced interaction with sensors.

How many people do you think are currently using openplotter / navigatrix?

It is hard to say again. Since this must be sustainable, we use free file sharing sites and torrent downloads and we do not have an accurate number of users or downloads. We have feedback from every continent and sea area, so I guess they could be hundreds or even thousands.

You sell accessories which are fully supported with openplotter and are completely transparent with the (optional) donation attached to the "sponsoring edition" SD card. It's a fantastic business model, but is openplotter a business, or is it still a hobby?

We believe in open source, transparency and fair business.  Development and coordination take a lot of time. We need to make some profit to keep working on it and this is how we try to do it:

Probably all your instruments are manufactured in Asia, but development, support and merchandising is done by third parties who obviously increase the final price. Retail shopping in the Asian market may be cheaper but it's also a traumatic experience due to the lack of product documentation and sales support. Too often you finally get a product that doesn't fit the promised specifications, doesn't work properly or takes more than a month to arrive. We try to be a filter. We do the hard work of finding reliable providers and charge a little money for doing so.

In the coming months we will open the "fake shop": a cost price online shop with all the junk and fake products that we have gathered in order to give them an opportunity for a second life in other projects. There will also be a list of providers we have found unreliable to help those who can't even afford our selected products and want to fight their own way through the Asian jungle.

If "still a hobby": What's your day job?

This model of donations/selling tested products seems to work and I can work half time on OpenPlotter. I still need to work as freelance web developer if I want to a living wage but at least now I can be selective about the clients and projects I choose.

Do you sail a boat, and if so what do you use openplotter for aboard?

My boat is gone but it is said that the best boat will be always your friends’ boat. I have seen OpenPlotter installations in all kind of boats.

What features of openplotter are the most popular with users?

The headline is always OpenCPN and its plugins. Second is the SDR AIS receiver followed by engine sensors and instrument panels.  Third is "home automation" features to monitor and control your boat while you are away.

Are openplotter users making much use of Signal K?

Not much at the moment. I think they feel that SK is just a way to receive N2K data but then they don't know what to do with these data. They know the basics but they don't have a sexy instrument panel or phone app to realize its power yet.

Galaxy Gear S2 driven by OpenPlotter and Signal K
Do you see Signal K overtaking NMEA-0183 as the predominant protocol for marine data communications between applications on IP networks, and if so when?

NMEA 0183 will be with us for a long time because it is the language which GPS and AIS talks but above all because it is the only language that OpenCPN can understand at the moment. But NMEA 0183 is not capable of managing non strict navigation data. Many types of sensors have begun to appear in our boats and homes so we need to store, manage, and show these data and another proprietary and limited protocol as N2K is not an option. There are already some SK servers on the market like OpenPlotter but I think the big change is down to SK apps developers, OpenCPN included.

What would make Signal K better?

Everything takes time, money, and monkeys. You need a lot from any two groups, and a little from the third. An increase in any one reduces the requirement for the other two. Change occurs when one of those three change.

Moe's Law, Navigatrix team.

I think SK now needs monkeys to get to a stable version asap and to improve the documentation.

You recently added MQTT support to openplotter, marrying marine data with the mainstream IoT world.  Have users reacted positively or remained uninterested?

Yes, some of them are excited about this and they are already playing with sensors but most of them do not have a clear idea about how they can set up a IoT system on their boats with OpenPlotter. They need manuals and a good documentation and we cannot offer this at the moment since our resources are limited and we have to choose between developing or documenting.

User-contributed MQTT-driven dashboard:

What format are you using to publish to MQTT and why not use Signal K/JSON objects?

OpenPlotter can send any kind of string including JSON objects over MQTT. It is up to the subscribers to parse and manage the string. In future OpenPlotter releases we will make building JSON objects easier, NMEA sentences… using any navigational data.

Is openplotter being used as a generic IoT device in non-marine applications?

I don't know, maybe. There are a lot of IoT home systems based on the Raspberry Pi, since OpenPlotter is too much boats oriented, maybe it would be better to use any of them.

What are the future plans for the openplotter project?

We are still under construction. The main goal now is to fully implement SK in version 0.9.0 in order to be able to deal with analogue sensors (batteries, engine, tanks...) properly.  We would also like to offer a good virtual instrument panel to round things off.

Once the goals are achieved, the next logic step is focus on hardware. Nowadays OpenPlotter is a project for “makers” and this always involves some skill with electronics or at least a big curiosity. We need to simplify the required devices and develop well documented hardware to make it easier for everyone to build a custom OpenPlotter system on board.