Radio Revamp

VHF offers more than a means to make idle conversation

August 28, 2012

The VHF radio has increasingly become an essential part of the electronics suite, certainly for core safety communications. Also, the growing integration with plotters and GPS has yielded an expanded role in situational awareness.

Garmin led the way on VHF integration with NMEA 2000 capabilities in both VHF radios and AIS transceivers. For a couple of years, the company had the only system that could initiate a VHF call directly to a specific vessel from the identifier on the plotter screen, eliminating the need to manually enter a vessel’s MMSI number (essentially its VHF phone number).

Ease of use and the design for integration put Garmin ahead in the market, but other manufacturers are catching up fast. If it has been a while since you reviewed the VHF component in your boat, it’s probably time to give it another look.


The integration of VHF hinges on two features: DSC (Digital Selective Calling) and AIS (Automatic Identification System). DSC enables your VHF radio to initiate a call that also communicates your GPS position. In an emergency, this feature tells the Coast Guard, as well as other boats, where you are. In non-emergency situations, DSC allows for discreet communication — say, for sharing fishing information you don’t want to broadcast to everyone with a radio or for keeping track of your friends on the plotter. AIS is an identification system that transmits vessel data, such as size, type, speed and bearing, to anyone with an AIS receiver, and it also provides the MMSI of a vessel.

DSC Versus AIS

“A lot of people don’t realize that DSC and AIS are two different things. We have to explain what the technology does,” says Dave McLain, national sales manager for Icom. “And AIS is catching on a lot quicker than DSC.” AIS allows vessels that may be blocked by geography to appear on a plotter screen, as it sees around corners that radar cannot, a huge benefit. “It’s caught on well around Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, where mountains often block the effectiveness of radar,” he says.


In high-traffic areas, such as shipping lanes, whether you are trolling or fishing at night, the warning of an approaching vessel offered by an integrated AIS alarm system can save your bacon. One of the challenges in using AIS crops up when the targets it displays clutter the plotter screen, but an AIS with a stand-alone display, so ship icons can be switched on and off on the plotter, solves that problem.

Icom’s new MXA500TR stand-alone AIS ($899) can be tied into chart plotters via NMEA 0183. It also allows you to initiate a VHF call to a vessel by pushing a button, without manually entering the MMSI number.

This alone is an important feature, and one that is rapidly becoming standard on AIS systems.


“AIS provides you with, among other things, a ship’s name, as well as its MMSI number,” says Jason Kennedy of Standard Horizon. “Instead of hailing it on channel 16 and saying ‘Hey, big freighter,’ you call them by name and they’ll respond.”

Follow That Car

Kennedy sees VHF as the backbone of a total communications system. “AIS is the hottest thing in VHF communications, and everybody’s coming out with a version of it,” he says. It’s also part of an integrated system that is developing in the shadow of the automotive model. “Look at the car industry,” he adds. “The communications center is controlled by touch screen, and that is what is happening with the marine. Most of the changes are happening in the plotter.”


The best of the new gear contributes to simpler integration and duplicates some of the plotter capabilities. The new Standard Horizon GX2150 ($399) not only sports its own display screen but also eliminates the need for a second antenna to receive AIS data.

Look to the Future

Navico is also in the process of pushing its VHF technology forward in new ways, and Don Korte, senior engineer for the company, predicts an interesting picture. He anticipates an overall systems approach with a lot more AIS over NMEA 2000. Case in point: the Lowrance LVR 880 ($220), which integrates the AIS functions and also works like a full navigator, capable of both straight-line and great circle navigation.

“We can upgrade the radio software over NMEA 2000 with an SD card in the MFD and add functions as they are developed,” Korte says. “Typically, a radio is a bugger to upgrade. This makes it easy if, for instance, you want the radio to talk to an AIS target or something. You are going to see higher-resolution screens on the radio because, like the LVR 880, VHFs are beginning to function like miniature plotters.”


Stand Alone

The option of displaying AIS targets on their own screen keeps the chart plotter clear for navigation.

Keep It Simple

The Call with Radio feature on Garmin’s AIS initiates a VHF call to a target using its MMSI number.

Navigate Too

Comprehensive displays turn VHF radios into mini navigators.

Next Wave

Lowrance’s LVR-880 is up-graded with an SD card via the MFD.

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