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Auto Pilots

Posted on: March 11 2008 by John Barry

The world of Autopilots is changing. And yet much remains the same. With the introduction of IPS and other Drive By Joystick systems on boats, Autopilot manufacturers have adapted drive protocols to interface directly with these systems. On the other hand, if your boat has Standard Inboard Motors, there are still a wide variety of products from which to chose.

The first thing to consider is the type of boat and boating. If your boat is steered by hydraulics, great, but what type of usage? Fishing is usually one of the hardest types of use there is. Think of it as “When is the boat most difficult for a man to steer?”. At slow speeds, often on a single screw, some boats are difficult or impossible to control. If a man can not hold it straight, then don’t ask an Autopilot to. For a sweet steering vessel, the Autopilot is more forgiving. Another consideration is hours of operation. If you fish for a few hours occasionally, a less rugged set up may suffice. If long range cruising is in the cards, a commercial unit is more appropriate.

Autopilot is the most complex system on most boats. It uses a lot of power and does a difficult job without tiring. It is both the best luxury addition a pleasure boat can get and the least safe device on almost any boat. Did you know that the operation of the Autopilot steered the Exxon Valdez into the Alaskan coast. Even though the fatigued driver corrected course, he forgot to disengage the autopilot, so the vessel resumed its course, while the driver slept. I have witnessed this phenomenon many times with a boater returning to harbor under autopilot and then just steering into the channel. When the Autopilot resumes the original approach course, panic is the rule. So if you are considering an Autopilot for your boat, keep this in mind.

Specifying a pilot for a boat is almost pure science. The cubic inch capacity of the steering ram, it’s throw and the amount of rudder applied per cubic inch if fluid flow, determine which Autopilot pump is required. This also plays in to the turning rate of the vessel. Once you know which drive pump you need, you must chose a drive computer that can move the pump quickly enough to keep the boat on course. The Amperage draw of the pump(Amp Rating) determines the minimum sized computer, and the flow rate determines the proper sized computer. Once you know which computer, the rest is features such as display size, handheld, wireless, etc. This is for an inboard, hydraulically steered boats. For Outboards, Stern drives and Mechanical Steering, things get a little more complicated.



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