Updating Your Multifunction Display

Black box upgrades for your GPS.

March 9, 2011

So you’ve got one of those newfangled GPS multifunction displays (MFD) with all the NMEA 2000 interface capabilities, and you hear rumors of all the miracles it can do besides tell you where you are and how deep the water is below you. Or you want a new MFD but are hanging on the edge of the buying crowd, waiting for some cool whistle or shiny bell to nudge you to the cash register.

Well, step right up. The beauty of these new systems is that they have so many add-on capabilities that they are unlikely to become obsolete for years, and you can expand them when you need some retail therapy. Here are a few of the possibilities.

Would you like to forget about foggy engine instruments? You can, because all the outboard companies except Mercury build their engine electronics on the NMEA 2000 platform — and even Merc provides a translator interlink so its engine can speak with NMEA 2000 electronics. What this means is that your engines can speak to your MFD, and you can bring up everything from engine temperature to revolutions per minute, and even some engine faults, on the screen. It’s a great way to streamline dashboards, and some boatbuilders are opting out of analog gauges altogether.


AIS, the up-and-coming Automatic Identification System, gives you the ability to “read” detailed information broadcast by nearby AIS-equipped vessels. It’s a GPS-linked message broadcast through a VHF band in bursts, and when an AIS receiver gets the ping, a commercial or other vessel’s name, radio call sign, position, heading, speed, destination, length, beam, draft and more are pinpointed on the MFD screen. That’s reason enough to get one.

You can also get an AIS transponder and send similar information out about yourself, giving the big boys in commercial waters a heads-up that you are nearby. ACR Electronics’ ( Nauticast B AIS universal module ($900) will connect to and add this capability to most MFD displays, such as the Furuno NavNet VX2 and 3D, all Garmin MFDs made since 2005, Raymarine C and e series, Simrad NSE and NSO systems and Standard Communications’ CP series of GPS/chart plotters.

Underwater Vision
Even the best depth sounders and fish finders can show you only what is directly beneath your boat’s hull. Forward-looking/side-scanning sonar, such as Interphase Technologies’ ( SE-200 Sonar Engine (with transducers, $2,600), is a little like underwater radar. It can show a 180-degree panoramic view of what is going on under the water’s surface directly in front of as well as off to each side of a boat. Lowrance and Simrad (, with their award-winning StructureScan accessory (from $770), brings a lifelike picture of submerged bottom structure and solid objects to several of their select fish-finder displays.


Instant Weather
Satellite weather overlays the same live weather pictures that professional forecasters use right onto your chartplotter screen with plug-in kits available from most MFD makers (from $1,200). This service is available from Sirius/XM by subscription.

The PB150 WeatherStation ($995) from Airmar ( and Furuno ( is a highly accurate multipurpose antenna that can deliver true and apparent wind speed and direction, air temperature, wind chill and barometric pressure to your display with GPS and compass heading data as a bonus.

******Night Vision**
This capability takes the mystery out of navigation after dark by turning night into day. Such devices can instantly show you that an unrecognizable radar target is the buoy you are on the outlook for and not a rock, small boat or other object. FLIR’s ( popular night-vision cameras (from $4,995) make perfect night-watch mates to MFDs with a video input.


Video Cameras
An all-in-one display is the perfect instrument for video cameras of all types. Cameras in the engine room let you monitor for smoke and keep you from having to run below every time you hear a noise under the hatch. This is also the perfect application for a back-down camera, keeping an eye on the kids or giving you eyes anywhere on the boat you need them.

Through-the-hull-downward or aft-looking cameras — or even a portable over-the-side waterproof camera — will give a monitor screen the same awesome view you would have if you stuck your head under water. Fishermen will revel in the thrill of towing an underwater camera behind them as they watch their quarry strike their bait. Check out Ocean Systems’ SplashCam (

Occasionally, it may be convenient to turn a navigation display into an entertainment monitor to watch satellite TV programming, a DVD or a video game. Above-deck entertainment may be a pleasant alternative on a warm evening, out in the open, when at the dock or on a mooring.


Sirius/XM radio programming also can be accessed and controlled by your MFD with an add-on audio module and a subscription.

Keep in mind that this is just a start. The list keeps growing. What you will be able to add to your MFD displays may prove limited only by man’s imagination. So stay tuned.


More Gear