Adding EPaper Navigation Data To A Sailboat

[Mike Holden] has been on the hunt for a display that is easy to read in bright sunlight. He wants to use it to read out navigational data on his sail boat. The best option is an ePaper display. He managed to build a system that will feed updating NMEA 0183 data to a Nook Simple Touch.

NMEA 0183 is a protocol that governs data from marine navigational equipment. The most obvious is GPS, but there are a lot of possibilities like sonar, a gyrocompass, and an autopilot. To get things rolling he wrote an Arduino sketch which generates dummy packets using the standard. This let him develop and test the system without being near any of the real equipment. The heart of the build is a WiFi router. It pulls in the data over a USB port using an RS232 to USB converter cable. A Python script parses the data and generates a webpage which refreshes the data every second. This is loaded using Opera browser on the Nook

Check out the video after the break to see a demo of the system.

27 thoughts on “Adding EPaper Navigation Data To A Sailboat

  1. I like this setup a lot.

    …but isn’t this exactly what GPSd was designed to do (and actually gives you more flexibility)? Couldn’t you get GPSd running on the router and have the NMEA stream parsed on each device by whatever software you wanted (including the routers web server)?

    Maybe I’m missing something though…

    1. Thanks hackaday for publishing my project. I didn’t know about GPSd, and actually started this project thinking the server would run on an Atmel chip without an OS so didn’t do much looking around. I looked at GPSd today– I’m not sure it would handle the non-GPS NMEA data. I’m getting boatspeed and water depth from an nmea transducer, will GPSd serve that data?

      I’ll follow comments in case people have any more questions.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you couldn’t broadcast to multiple devices using Bluetooth, so showing the display on the Nook, laptop and iPod at the same time wouldn’t be possible.

    1. Uh… the router is doing the work, which says it’s running Tomato (nix based). I doubt it’d be too far out of the realm of reason to get GPSd running there if it hasn’t been done already. In this case the Windows laptop is just browsing a webpage (in fact all the devices aside from the router and Arduino are just doing this).

      GPSd also has the ability to send dummy streams, so you could potentially get rid of the Arduino all together, but judging by his note (to fulfill Hack-a-day requirements) he probably already knows that much.

  2. E-Paper has it’s limitations. It image-ghosts too easily and can’t be put into a large sail. The wind would tear it apart in short order. How can you even look at it while tacking (sp?) the breeze? The sail is going from one side to the other.

    Well I propose that you use the new Pixel Qi display monitor that can be seen in ANY lighting conditions including bright sun light. I propose mounting it on top of a 12 volt DC directional PANNING motor on top of the wheelhouse inside a weatherproof glass & wood radome (weatherproof enclosure) See picture at . The helmsman can use a handheld remote control (RF not IR) to turn the display toward the viewer anywhere from on deck. It’s protected from wind and rain by the box. The PC is below deck or inside the radome.

    The remote control can be worn on a lanyard so it won’t be lost. The electronics here in this case is pointless as it’s all hardwired to the PC that already has the NMEA data card/USB stick & sensors installed.

    Good design though!

      1. I think he is serious. I have an idea for autorotating display based on heel of the boat that needs to be worked out. It involves a ball rolling down to lower side of display box and box pivoting on axis in middle of display.

        Sorry for double post below as well

      2. My main point was that Pixel Qi is superior to E-Paper in performance. I must have misread the OP. I thought the OP was looking for a sailboat HUD (heads up display) via his sail sheet. I didn’t understand the the reasoning for the in depth electronics solution when he was just looking for a HUD. The idea I proposed was not a joke. It was just a HUD that can be seen from any angle in any light. I understood the technology I just didn’t see how it addressed the original problem.

    1. gotcha. The Pixel QI would work but is way more expensive than the Nook Simple Touch, now going for about $99. Instruments are mounted either at the mast, bulkhead or pedestal.

      Opening up NMEA data to display on a NST means you can use wind instruments, depth sounders etc. This is a pretty big deal actually for those not looking to spend the $1000’s to display same info and, use an open source solution.

      1. OK I get it now. DIY is the mandate of Hack-a-Day concept – my bad (duh)!!! So to use a Chetco SeaSmart ( would defeat the DIY purpose I guess ($495 to $695)?

        So in looking at your idea of using a Nook Simple Touch, in a HUD configuration, I would need to set up a local webserver on the boat with 802.11 (wi-fi) so the Nook could read the data in HTML format (i.e. a local webpage)?

        So I need to find a way to collect the NMEA data (which I believe is a 4800 baud RS232 serial signal from the sensor/device(s))? I guess the webserver PC would need free software ( ) to read the data into an application which could be customized to display on a Nook-like device (via HTML?) any way you like.

        That way you get your e-paper concept but the display would be very small. You say you could mount it in a HUD config on a mast, bulkhead, etc. Why not just put it upside-down on a lanyard around your neck or on a wristband of some sort? That way your hands could be relatively free to maintain the wheel. However, the continually updating (changing) display at once-per-second would tend to ghost. Did not know polarized lens will mitigate ghosting.

        E-Ink Readers are meant to read a stationary text that does not change rapidly like a video or a clock (I think). You may try all this and then find out that the Nook is a pain-in-the-arse to watch.

        You might look into TOLED technology which seems to work well in HUD displays in bright sunlight and tend to be much better at rapidly changing displays than E-ink (aka e-paper).
        HUD means Heads Up Display
        TOLED means transparent organic light-emitting device
        One thing about Insurance Inspections on marine equipment. The inspector will be happy if he/she knows that the actual sensor equipment is certified electronics. The display being on a PC or PDA screen is not a real issue as that is universally acceptable. However, I see the point on the inspector seeing any homebrew soldering hack-jobs hanging off of it. That would make me very uncomfortable too. So NEAT and PROFESSIONAL is a must – I agree 100%.

        However, I don’t know how the local city or state tax assessor will respond to any of it (cha-ching! (cash register sound))- LOL

        OH and auto-rotating display during boat heeling? Try a gimbal mount (

  3. Nice job Mike! The cat’s out of the bag… This is what the marine display industry should be worried about. This display is great in daylight with polarized glasses on.

    For Android folks, I use my rooted nook simple touch, running Simple Sailor (or Beer Can Racer)and from my android cell, push the serial GPS data to the the nook via Tether GPS, hotspot and wifi. There are many tricks to make this work. Feel free to contact me for more info bstsurf at gmail. Mine doesn’t display all NMEA data, just speed and bearing.

    The Nook doesn’t have bluetooth for those asking about that.

    1. That makes me wounder If I could use one to put maps on. Most tank bags for motorcycles have a map pocket. I have a mount for my cell phone for have but the screen is very hard to read and sometimes you just need a map instead of turn by turn nav.

      1. Google maps and navigation didn’t come natively on my rooted rom but I am pretty certain you could install them. Ghosting may be an issue here though, would have to test it out.

        Also- a big bonus is that there is now a NST with GlowLight background lighting so you can use it night.

      2. Mod – sorry I hit the wrong button!!! Not reporting this guy!!!

        I use TWO GPS devices, one for turn-by-turn and the second for map display. The 2nd one’s GPS circuit must have died anyway so I just pull up the map I need and change centering as needed. The 1st one still works fine.

        Regarding mounting on bike handlebars. I’m looking into that. Radio Shack (aka Tandy) used to have a bike mount kit but it is long discontinued now. I want to build one from scratch with a plumber’s adjustable hose clamp.

        Just need to figure out how to mount the hose clamp to the GPS device’s bottoms.

  4. Nice job Mike! The cat’s out of the bag… This is what the marine display industry should be worried about. This display is great in daylight with polarized glasses on, ghosting is not a problem.

    For Android folks, I use my rooted nook simple touch, running Simple Sailor (or Beer Can Racer)and from my android cell, push the serial GPS data to the the nook via Tether GPS, hotspot and wifi. There are many tricks to make this work. Feel free to contact me for more info bstsurf at gmail. Mine doesn’t display all NMEA data, just speed and bearing.

    The Nook doesn’t have bluetooth for those asking about that and I couldn’t find how to enable bluetooth.

    I used it for a race this weekend and for $139 vs. $600+ for same data from marine instruments, it worked great.

  5. I really like this one, elegant simplicity. Yeah he could have connected a GPS directly to the Nook, but that defeats the purpose.

    Doing it this way lets him get the info from multiple stations, and also keep completely mobile with the Nook.

  6. I have to believe, with all the frugal sailors out there, that someone has combined all their on-board sensors (depth, wind speed, boat speed, heading, wind heading, etc..) through arduino/rasperry pi/e-ink-display into a replacement for the standard $15000 systems that most sailing electronics companies charge. This work comes close to a finalized first step to making such a cheap system, so grats for that.

    1. Agreed. One further compelling rationale is that the NST with Glow Light can make the instruments available in the dark. It will only be a matter of time before someone incorporates wind/depth etc from a triple transducer to be displayed on a NST.

  7. Commercial systems have some expenses that you won’t find in most DIY systems. Many manufactures build their equipment with significant redundancy to meet certification requirements.

    There are also third party testing costs and licensing fees like NEMA 0183 which is a proprietary standard.

    Then there’s the boat tax which says if it’s marine equipment it will cost twice as much.

    This is nice build on the bench and I hope it works well on the boat. The leap from bench to field is a long one when dealing with boats.

    If you want to add a lot of sensors or data heavy streams to a system you would be much better off using NEMA 2000 since it is faster and can support much more input.

    One more thing to consider is insurance for your boat if it is out fitted with non-certified electronics. Your surveyor will need to note this in the report so make your system is neat and professional.

    1. I agree with most of the cost comments, this system isn’t built like most marine instruments. I’m hopeful it will stand up to my recreational use.

      I decided against NMEA 2000 because it is proprietary and closed; NMEA 0183 does not require licensing, I believe. For hobbyists NMEA is going in a frustrating direction making the protocol closed; I would rather they publish the protocol and make money from certification. I would welcome an open source ethernet data protocol for marine instrumentation.

      1. NEMA 0183 and NEMA 2000 are both proprietary standards and the written documentation is a couple of thousand dollars with royalties assessed for commercial sales.

        NEMA seems to look the other way when it comes to experimentation and hobby uses. At one time a student license was offered but that was in conjunction with an academic institution.

        I’m not sure what the reaction would be if there was a large and visible group building open source boat instruments with NEMA standards. I will get in touch with my contacts there and see what they think.

        If it is fair use I will post an announcement in the forums here so we can get something organized in one place.

        Your system will work fine using 0183 until you start adding rich data streams. Do take a look at NEMA 2000, I think it is much easier to work with because it uses a better architecture and that alone makes baud rate a non-issue. Unfortunately it is not backwards compatible with 0183.

        Anyway,nice job and I hope you will consider participating if we can get a site up over the winter.

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