Boat Autopilot Electronics

As reliability and durability improve, a once-exotic component becomes standard equipment, answering anglers’ needs.

October 19, 2012

Autopilots work through complex interaction between a number of components, and they can be unforgiving of any ­malfunction, so they have to be right. Once found only on bigger cruising boats, autopilots have moved naturally to the helm of smaller fishing boats, bringing a number of benefits. As center consoles got bigger and faster, and anglers began to run farther to the fishing grounds, the distinct advantages offered by an autopilot became even more evident.

Angler Benefits

TO WIT: Autopilots reduce operator fatigue during a long run to the fishing grounds; they allow the helmsman to be a more active part of the fishing crew, and since they steer more accurately than a human being, they provide fuel savings, which can be significant, especially with multiple engines and long, high-speed runs.


Traditionally autopilots operated with a manual rudder feedback system — actually a mechanical part that told the unit the position of the rudder, or the outboard motor. This component, somewhat vulnerable to damage, was less of a problem on inboard boats, where the parts were well protected. On outboard-powered boats, the feedback arm was exposed to damage, and as one outboard autopilot adopter observed, “We broke two or three of them.”

Choice of control: The Furuno NavPilot 700 offers a choice of control heads, from console to handheld to compact remote.

Modern Age


When the mechanical-rudder ­feedback went away, it was replaced by hydraulic feedback that communicates the relative position of the engines to the control head. Outboard owners readily embraced the improvement in reliability and durability. In the past couple of years, all the major manufacturers have revamped their autopilots, bringing the gear up to date and making it far more adaptable to outboard use. Simrad, Raymarine and GeoNav have had updated versions out for a while. In the past year, both Garmin and Furuno have launched their own improved autopilots.

With the announcement of the Garmin and Furuno ’pilots, it’s clear the modernization goes beyond the simple ­elimination of the rudder feedback mechanism. The equipment is actually getting smarter, and able to learn how to do a better job on a given boat. Functionality is growing even as the mechanical components are getting ­simpler and more reliable.

Get Smart


Garmin’s GHP 20, originally steer-by- wire, now brings hydraulic steering capability to Garmin’s autopilot system. “The precursor, GHP 10 entry level ‘pilot is a great autopilot. The algorithms for driving a straight line and all that are great,” says Adam Kiburz, Garmin product line manager.

“Now we’ve taken it to the next level with the GHP 20, and the SmartPump.”

The SmartPump is an especially robust, one-size-fits-all hydraulic pump that replaces the three different-size pumps previously available with the GHP 10.


SmartPump uses a brushless motor for reliability.

“No one has ever done this before. We tried to make this the Cadillac of pumps,” says Kiburz.

Garmin claims it’s a tough pump, and they’re mighty proud of it. “We beat the tar out of this thing,” says Kiburz. “It is one size fits all, and it can work on almost all steering systems. The pump is brushless, so it’s smaller, it ­allows better performance, higher reliability, longer life and lower power consumption.”

Another feature of the SmartPump is Garmin’s IRRT, Intelligent Rudder Rate Technology. This allows the pump to match turning response to boat speed. At slow speeds, a lot of helm is required to get the job done; at high speeds, very little turning is required. The ­SmartPump adjusts its response to match boat speed for optimal ­performance and safety — at all speeds.

Ongoing Upgrade

Furuno announced the NavPilot 700 ($4,095) almost a year ago, and has been improving the operation and functionality of the software ever since.

The NavPilot 700 has a couple of important new features, according to senior product manager Eric Kunz: “The big thing is the NMEA 2000 port. This one is certified by NMEA.”

Secondly is the feature Furuno calls Fantum Feedback, which eliminates the mechanical-rudder reference ­mechanism. Part and parcel of Fantum Feedback — the operational backbone of the 700 — are a range of new safety and ­convenience features.

Safe Helm allows the driver to take control from the autopilot for emergency maneuvering or dodging obstacles. This feature temporarily disables the ­NavPilot steering control when manual helm changes are sensed. After the maneuver is completed, Safe Helm restores the ­autopilot course. An optional FPS8 Power Steering Module — about $900 — is required to activate the Safe Helm feature.

Power Assist mode reduces steering effort, similar to power steering on a car, effectively adding hydraulic assist steering to any system, and working in ­conjunction with SafeHelm.

“We added bidirectional sensing capabilities to Safe Helm,” says Kunz. “It senses how you turn the wheel: port or starboard. Depending on the speed and how you have configured the pilot, it activates the pump in the direction you turn the wheel, so it kicks into Power Assist. On a 45- to 75-footer, the autopilot pump can function as a power-steering pump, resulting in huge cost savings.


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