Starlight LED helming guide, plus Autonnic’s unusual A55 “analog” instrument displays

One of my METS show highlights was the Starlight LED Helming Guide introduced by Autonnic Research. While the concept is somewhat hard to grasp from ashore — even with an animation — I think it’s a great example of how electronics can be fashioned into a unique and useful tool that connects intuitively with the natural world of boating. While “a star to steer by” sounds lovely, I’ve observed many a helmsman who needed lots of help and experience to make it a truly smooth and pleasurable experience, and I’m pretty sure that Starlight can substantially shorten the learning curve. Autonnic CEO Chris Shelton also showed me some prototype analog instrument displays that use unusual scaling when it’s brilliantly useful, as explained in the second section.

Autonnic A5600 Starlight LED steering light bar

The initial A5600 Starlight is a 36-inch (910 mm) tube encapsulating a 26-inch (660 mm) LED light bar along with simple dimming and course setting buttons. The light bar is meant to install 6 to 16 feet forward of the helm and vertically close to the driver’s visual horizon, with the cable connecting to DC power and a NMEA 0183 Heading source (like one of Autonnic’s own fluxgate sensors). So the fixed on-center yellow LED marks your bow while the active blue LEDs marking the Course to Steer change to port or starboard as illustrated this Autonnic animation:

In other words, Starlight gives you a constant reference not just to your steering accuracy but also to how quickly your error or correction is taking place. And it’s not necessary to glance downward to a compass or a conventional instrument display, aside from deciphering the real meaning of changing digital numbers or a swinging card. Moreover, Starlight allows adjustment of the horizontal degree angle represented by the light bar’s red and green LED endpoints so it best integrates your helm view to real-world objects like stars or navaids, or simply to adjust how precisely your wobbly steering is displayed.

The A5600 Starlight (PDF specifications here) is available now for about $329, but note that Autonnic hopes to add steering to waypoint or wind angle options by about June. Also planned for release at about the same time is a NMEA 2000 Starlight system with all three steer-by modes possible. And while I don’t know of any concrete plans, I like to picture how slickly the Starlight technology could be built into a dodger or the after edge of a cockpit companionway, or maybe even the fully integrated “dashboards” we’re going to start seeing in many new boats this year.

Autonnic A55 Instrument Displays

Prototype design for Autonnic analog voltage/current display

Prototype design for Autonnic analog voltage/current display

While the prototype instruments that Autonnic showed in Amsterdam were crude, I sure liked the concept. It’s not just the “classic watch-like” design style, though that can look great on a yacht and many people understand data in analog form more easily. What really got my attention was Chris Shelton’s willingness to mess with traditional scaling to better show the information boaters really want.

So in the case of this 12v DC power display, the voltage is only shown from 10 to 16 because precision in that range is important, and a battery bank or charging source outside that range probably has serious issues regardless of exact voltage. Meanwhile, showing DC current on a logarithmic-like scale makes it possible to monitor small loads with precision while still seeing large ones.

Autonnic A5520 analogue wind display

Autonnic A5520 analogue wind display

Autonnic’s power display has not been formally announced yet, but the A5520 Wind and A5500 Compass displays are official, and the wind speed display above deserves particular attention. I don’t think that’s an actual logarithmic scale, but wind force on a boat increases at a greater rate than linear wind speed — here’s the math — and Autonnic seems to combine that notion with emphasis on the wind speed/forces that boaters tend to care most about.

Note, for instance, the inclusion of a secondary Beaufort scale, a wind force metric also jiggered to reflect resulting open sea states. And wouldn’t you agree that while most sailors (and smart power boaters) become intimate with the precise differences experienced in the 5 to 25 knot wind speed range, pretty much all you need to know about an increase from 30 to 40 knots is that life will become much worse?

And would you also agree that Autonnic is demonstrating how modern electronics can improve analog style information delivery, not just duplicate it? I look forward to hearing more about how Starlight and the A55 instruments perform in the real world, but I wasn’t surprised to learn in today’s research that Chris Shelton is a longtime innovator.

Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

4 Responses

  1. Nick Reynolds says:

    Why do any manufacturers support 0183 any more? This is such a difficult thing for us DIY guys when there is more than a couple of 0183 devices on the same boat that it is incredibly frustrating.

    • Colin A says:

      From talking to manufacturers 0183 is still much more common in the commercial marine world then NMEA2000. And if the product is simple enough manufacturers generally want to avoid additional complexity brought in with NEMA 2000 for manufacturing etc. Really it’s about whether they think going to NMEA200 brings enough value to the consumer.

  2. Reading your article brought to home an experience I had yesterday driving a new 2019 Dodge 1500 Ram pickup. As this is just a part-time job for me, I hadn’t experienced the novelty of the newer models but this item (the gauges/meters/monitors layout) intrigued me no end. Yes, the speedometer and RPM gauges are forefront but utilize differing concentric circles to reveal their information to the driver. Engaging the cruise control not only shows the digital representation of the speed selected in numbers but puts a neat, little blue dot on the speedometer “ring” . . varying up or down exposes a green dot as to the vehicle’s actual speed. All in all, very neat and can I say – “elegant”. Wonder if our boat dashes can utilize all of these digital vagaries and incorporate them into a single gauge as well? Seems that is what Mr. Shelton is investigating as well.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The image “Prototype design for Autonnic analog voltage/current display” is just plain ugly, wouldn’t have that anywhere near my boat. Sorry.

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