Wrangling Distant WiFi Signals

Several years ago I wrote about creating a WiFi extender for our previous boat, the MV LAIKA. For that project, which you can review here, I utilized a Ubiquiti Bullet high-powered WiFi radio to bring distant marina WiFi signals into our boat where they were re-broadcast through a private network.

Things worked fairly well back then. In fact, I had even permanently mounted the antenna for the Ubiquiti radio on top of the boat so it could benefit from the added height and increased signal range. When that boat was sold the antenna and custom wired setup went with it.

New Boat, New Project

Fast forward several years, and with a new boat, I decided to revisit the same challenge after repeatedly visiting marines only to discover that it was often difficult picking up WiFi signals when situated in distant slips.

The problem was most apparent, and most frustrating, when we stayed in Vancouver at Coal Harbor Marina – a premium marina in the heart of downtown Vancouver, B.C. Despite having a first-class facility they’ve neglected to wire the marina with WiFi and force guests to walk over to their front office in order to gain online access. That’s neither convenient nor fun late at night or when it’s raining (or snowing!).

So the extended WiFi project was reborn. Interestingly, and perhaps a testament to the success of Ubiquiti’s products, the Bullet WiFi radio is still a leading choice for building consumer-grade long-distance WiFi networks. So, again, it was selected.

Products selected for this build included:

Those were all the items that went into creating the latest WiFi extender. The purpose of the Ubiquiti Bullet, along with the Engenius antenna, is to communicate with distant WiFi access points.  They could be a mile or more away and it might still be possible to effectively communicate with them.

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The TP-Link Access Point is what communicates with the Ubiquiti Bullet and creates another, private WiFi network inside the boat. If you were just driving a single PC you could connect directly to the Ubiquiti, using a CAT5 cable and POE source, but in our experience there are often several people and multiple devices that need access to the Internet simultaneously.

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Self-Contained Unit

The first time I did a project like this I had separate components and multiple power supplies (at that time I was using an AC-powered POE injector). This time I decided to create a more pleasing and easier-to-manage package.

That’s why I, basically, re-installed the guts of this thing inside of a component case I found at Fry’s. The TP-Link router came in a beautiful, curvy plastic case but after removing two screws it was revealed to be a tiny little board with little more than two antenna connectors. That’s what made inserting it into my own case so easy.

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Designed to Remain “In The Boat”

This project is also different from the first time I built something similar in that I decided that the whole unit would be self-contained – including the antenna. While mounting the extender’s antenna externally, on my vessel’s arch, would provide for greater signal reach (like I did before) I decided that I’d be able to get by with something that could reside inside the cabin.

My thinking was that I could pull the device out of a closet and stick on a shelf while we were in port connected to shore power (or near shore on generator) and then hide it away when not in use. I could also position it in different places in the boat, if necessary – or move it to a friend’s boat just as easily. Currently I’m driving the device with a 9V AC-to-DC adaptor but could easily rig it to run off the boat’s 12V system.

By forgoing an externally mounted antenna I also reduced mounting and wiring complexity and cost.

Want your own?

If you’d to build something similar for your boat feel free to reach out for additional details about configuring the two main components. Additionally, if you’d like me to create one for you, I’m happy to do so for the cost of the components and a coffee! I’m starting to explore the use of 3D printers and I figured I could create an even better case for the next one I assemble.

Alternatives

In case you were wondering, there are several commercially available solutions available that perform the same, basic functionality. Many utilize the Ubiquiti radio internally, since it’s so compact and has such a good track record. Here are some of the products and companies I’ve discovered:

Of all of these systems, the most integrated ones appear to be The Wirie and Global Marine’s Redport. They’re also similarly priced. Still, you could do it yourself for about $100 less.

The other alternative, of course, is to use your cell phone’s data services. Things have  changed quite a bit from when I first built my range extender for the MV LAIKA.

For example, when I’m at Carillon Point, my AT&T LTE service delivers speeds in excess of 30Mb/s down and 12Mb/s up! That’s remarkable, and far, far faster than the BBX WiFi the marina provides. But, it’s a trade-off. With your own WiFi network bridging a marina system you can drive more devices without, potentially, jeopardizing your data plan’s capacity limits.

Update

I’ve discovered 3D Printing! Waited a few years – and I guess that’s a good thing. The current set of tools that are available are quite remarkable, and more refined than those that were available a few years ago. For example, I designed a new case for this project using TinkerCad – a free, browser-based application from Autocad. It’s super easy to learn and use. After about a week I was able to construct a brand new case to hold the TP-Link router, the Ubiquiti Bullet, a POE adapter and a 12-to-9V power regulator I designed and soldered to a tiny PCB.

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With TinkerCad I was able to print using a network of hobbyist-owned printers, finding one in Redmond, not far from where I live. Version 1.0 of the case turned out extremely well and I’m looking to make a few refinements for the next one. I also found an online tool that could take any 2D drawing and convert it into a 3D .stl file which could be imported into TinkerCad.

If you want to see some of the objects I made with TinkerCad just search their gallery for my user name – davidgeller. When this project is completed I’ll likely release the full set of components so you can create your own case.

I haven’t had this much fun since…well… Boating!

Wireless Headsets – a vital accessory for larger boats

“Ok, Straight back. Ten feet, five feet, stop. Stop! STOP!” Have you ever been in a conversation like that with your spouse, on your boat? If your boat is reasonably sized then it has probably been pretty easy to talk to someone spotting your position or helping you with instructions from the lock master.

Now consider having to depend upon those same, important verbal queues on a much larger boat, perhaps one with limited visibility or a completely enclosed bridge.

Our latest boat, the MV KAYLA, is a good 15 feet longer and many tons heavier then our previous boat. While its larger size and weight has delivered comfort and stability, it has also proved more difficult to safely maneuver in tight spots – like our marina or the Ballard Locks. Even with the benefit that Zeus Pod drives and joystick control bring, there’s no substitute for clear communications among the crew when relaying important information.

No one wants to damage their vessel or, worse, risk injury with someone falling into the water while wrangling a line or assisting during docking.

When we first received the KAYLA last May we purchased a set of Eartec Simultec 24G wireless headsets. They promised clear, full-duplex (meaning we didn’t have to push any buttons and could have a normal conversation) communications that my wife and I would use when docking or transiting the locks. We used them a few times and, at in the beginning, they seemed to operate reasonably well. But, they weren’t very comfortable and the headset and radio were separate pieces that were, sometimes, hard to attach to our life vests.

SPH10

More recently we upgraded to what we believed would be a superior headset – the Sena SPH10-10 Headset – and, so far, we’ve been very pleased. The units are easy to use and are far more comfortable than the Eartec units. The radio and headset are one unit. There’s nothing to dangle. No wires to worry about. The Sena headsets are all-digital, whereas the Eartec units were not and required flipping switches to change frequencies in case there was interference (we never had any).

Sena appears to be a recognized leader in wireless recreational headsets and counts the motorcycle market, among others, as their core audience. I first discovered them in a Yachting magazine and found that they were available directly on Amazon.com. At approximately $150 each they’re not inexpensive (the Eartec units are similarly priced). But, consider the cost of damaging your swim deck or the side of your boat because you couldn’t hear your spouse’s shouts from your pilot house or through the glass of your bridge.

Charging and setting up the SPH10-10 headsets was easy. Any USB power source will work, though the larger cubes designed for devices like iPads are better than the little ones that charge phones.

Configuring the units was also easy. We set ours up to talk to one another. However, the SPH10-10s can be configured to work with any Bluetooth audio device, such as a mobile phone.

Similar to the Eartec units, the Sena SPH10-10s allow you to conduct full-duplex conversations. That means you talk normally, as if the person you were talking to was directly in front of you. There are no buttons to push. Nothing to activate. The unit comes with two types of microphones. We opted to attach the included extension (and flexible) boom mic. When we’re in the locks I can usually hear the lock master as he or she delivers commands to Cathia at the same time she’s hearing them. When docking, and Cathia is near the swim deck, I can clearly hear her deliver distance and directional queues critical to my safely returning KAYLA to her slip.

There are other headsets available. Eartec even makes a professional set, but they’re way more expensive than the Sena units. If you’ve got a big boat, or one with limited access or visibility you might consider acquiring a set of wireless communication headsets. I’d label them important safety tools. Some have called them marriage savers.

An ideal smoke alarm for boats

Did you know that boat manufacturers (from small cruisers to big yachts) continue to sell and deliver their products without installing integrated smoke alarms? Boats with enclosed cabins will typically come with carbon monoxide detectors, but it’s rare for smoke and fire detectors to be present – despite the clear and obvious benefit to health and safety.

Recently I discovered a smoke and fire detector that seems purpose built for boats. It’s small, battery powered, easy to install and has a piercing audible alarm. Manufactured by First Alert, the SMOKE1000 Atom Micro Photoelectric Smoke Detector has found a place aboard our boat the MV KAYLA.

First Alert Smoke 1000

First Alert SMOKE1000 (left) seems ideal for boats. It was installed next to the built-in carbon monoxide detector that the vessel’s manufactured provided.

Although I’ve linked to Amazon for the SMOKE1000, I discovered them at Loews for a few dollars less at under $20/each. If you need several there’s also a three-pack available through Amazon.

If your boat has an enclosed cabin with sleep quarters and you don’t have a smoke detector it’s imperative you acquire and install one. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

 

Visit your keel – and stay dry!

Here’s a quick tip for satisfying your boating curiosity and, if necessary, shedding light on a problem you may, one day, encounter underway (such has hitting a dead-head with a prop, fouling an anchor line, or worse!).

It has to do with observing the underside, or keel, of your boat, and doing so while (1) remaining perfectly dry and (2) not having to haul your boat out to a trailer or dry-dock.

This past Seafair Sunday I decided to experiment with a GoPro HERO3 HD camera by attaching it to a utility pole and submersing it at the stern of the MV LAIKA. What I received was a pleasant surprise and, for me, a rare glimpse into observing our two Mercury I/O drives in action.

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If you’ve watched any extreme sports these past few years (skiing, motocross, base jumping, etc.) or broadcast TV personalities reporting from inside a car, you’ve likely experienced footage from the amazing GoPRO (or similar) camera. This class of small digital cameras are fitted with incredibly wide angle, relatively fast, fixed-focus lenses. They deliver stunning HD quality video.

While floating 200 feet above the bottom of Lake Washington, just North of the I90 bridge, I decided to attach my HERO3 camera to a utility pole and submerse it under water. The brief video below demonstrates the clarity and quality of the captured footage. You’ll see our port-side engine, swim deck and one of the trim tabs. The starboard engine can be seen briefly.

If you’re familiar with the MV LAIKA you’ll know it’s outfitted with Mercury’s Axius computerized drive system. That’s why the props were occasionally spinning. The GPS-controlled “Skyhook” electronic anchoring system was running and the boat was attempting to keep its position. Note – it’s incredibly dangerous to be anywhere near the engines when this system is running and we would never allow anyone to enter the water while it’s on. Actually, as policy goes aboard our boat – no one gets into the water or near the swim deck when the engines are on and the keys are even physically connected to the console.

To date I’ve used  GoPro cameras to capture bike riding adventures, skiing and, now, the keel of our boat. They’re fun to use and you’ll find numerous uses for them – some entertaining and some very practical.

GoPro cameras start at $199 (you can pick them up online or at Best Buy) and current models use micro SD cards for storage. A 32GB class 10 card runs around $24 and can store hours and hours of 1080p HD footage.

Creating a wireless Internet network

While boating season is finally here and you’re undoubtedly itching to spend as much time as possible on your boat, there’s a good chance you’ll also be spending a fair amount of time docked and looking to connect your arsenal of electronic devices including laptops, iPads and smartphones.

Since acquiring our boat last August we’ve had loads of fun navigating around Lake Washington and Lake Union as well as taking short voyages into the Sound including some half-day trips to Poulsbo. We’ve put close to one hundred hours on each of our two engines, surprising boating friends of ours that have adopted, shall we say, a more seasonal style of boating. Hot, cold, dry, wet – it’s always boating weather for us.

Beside firing up the engines and heading out from our marina, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working onboard. Not working on the boat – fixing things or adding equipment – but, rather, in the boat, using my laptop computer. It has become something of a floating pied-à-terre for work.

You’ve probably noticed one or more WiFi access points in your own marina or at some of the outstations you’ve visited. There were a couple at my marina as well, but I wasn’t comfortable using them for business purposes. They also had weak signals, causing them to be both slow and unreliable. I needed a commercial solution.

LOTS OF CHOICES
I considered Clearwire and their 4G WiMax service. They appeared to have superb coverage around and on Lake Washington and could deliver fairly impressive download speeds. The only problem I saw was that while this solution would have worked well at our home port, Clearwire’s coverage footprint in less populated areas and the San Juans is spotty.

Mobile 3G and 4G service from the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon was another option but, like Clearwire’s service, suffered the same coverage penetration problem.

So, I decided to go the more traditional route and return to my original idea of grabbing onto a good WiFi signal – harnessing commercial WiFi sources at my home marina and at marinas we would plan to visit during summer trips. I’d skip trying to have Internet service while underway and accept that it was a convenience to be afforded only when docked.

The plan sounded great but was flawed by a simple matter of physics. Have you ever had trouble connecting to your own home’s WiFi because you we too far away? Maybe a wall was between you, or there was interference from other devices or the microwave. Imagine being at the end of a 200 foot long dock trying to connect to the marina’s $59 WiFi access point – along with dozens of other boaters. It doesn’t always work well. I experienced the same problem in my marina, as I noted above.

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH WIFI
So, I started researching gear that could boost and amplify WiFi signals to give the LAIKA the opportunity to latch on to WiFi base stations no matter how long the dock. In fact, the solution I selected and installed was able to pull in and harness WiFi signals from vast distances!

I researched and acquired the following items:

What’s significant about this solution is that it harnesses the remarkable Bullet2HP from Ubiquiti, a company that has established some very impressive long-distance WiFi records. If you thought it was hard getting a good WiFi signal throughout your home imagine spanning a distance of 304Km! That was done with some of their higher-end gear and is described by this news release. The humble and relatively inexpensive Bullet2HP I selected has been capable of spanning a distance of over 60 miles! Now, that amazing feat relied upon some very specialized antennas and a clear line of site between two similar configurations. But, it goes to show what’s technically possible.

My requirements were far more modest. I simply wanted to have the Bullet2HP connect to a commercial WiFi service operated at or near the marina and bridge the service so that I could operate a private WiFi network onboard my vessel. The WiFi signal captured by the Bullet2HP would connect directly to a Netgear WiFi Access Point and appear, to that device, as the WAN (wide-area network) source.

I discovered that BroadbandXpress operated a commercial WiFi service near my marina and also had decent coverage throughout the Puget Sound area and some marinas in Canada. Since I was planning to work often on the boat, performing work for my company, I found their discounted yearly fee of $299 a fair price. It was actually quite a bit less than a comparable 4G or Clearwire contract.

SIMPLE HOW-TO
Configuring all my components was fairly straightforward. The Ubiquiti Bullet2HP draws its power over Ethernet, so a small, inexpensive power injector delivers current over a CAT5 data cable. The other end of the Bullet connects directly to an antenna. In my case I opted for the AIR802 2.4Ghz Omnidirectional WiFi marine antenna. You can find this particular antenna online for around $79. I ended up having my antenna professionally mounted to the side of the LAIKA, but there are lots of mounting options available if you want to do everything yourself.

Once the Bullet2HP is connected to an antenna and the other end to a CAT5 cable connected to a Power-over-Ethernet (POE) injector which, in turn, is connected to the WAN port of a Netgear router, you can begin accessing the Internet.

During testing, well before I moved all the gear to the boat, I set things up in my house and connected my laptop directly to the CAT5 that was connected to the Bullet. Using only a web browser (in my case Firefox) I connected to the Bullet at 192.168.1.20 – the default IP address for the device. The Bullet operates its own, internal web server which is what you use to set things up. Everything about the device is highly configurable and no specialized software, beside your browser, is required to work with it.

What was remarkable then, as it remains today, is how truly impressive the Bullet’s abilities are with regard to capturing distant WiFi signals. I’ll bet that when you open up your laptop and search for WiFi signals you often pull up only a few. Maybe more if you’re in a crowded area or have a neighborhood full of WiFi networks. When I first powered up the Bullet at our marina I was amazing that it detected over 50 networks – from nearby homes and offices. Most were secured, but many were not. Had I wanted, I could have easily latched on and started using the Internet from any of the open networks.

I ended up configuring the Bullet2HP to connect to a BroadbandXpress access point located somewhere near our marina. The signal has been strong enough to deliver about 3Mb/s service both up and down.

WATCHFUL EYE
Beside having Internet service available for computer and smartphone users, there’s another benefit to have connectivity – video surveillance. I equipped the LAIKA with a few tiny cameras that connect to a special base station that shares their images with my phone or laptop when I’m away.

The system is called VueZone and it’s about the simplest monitoring solution you can imagine – for any environment. Practically no configuration was required and clients are available for the iPhone and desktop computers.

Now, it could be argued that having this level of surveillance for your boat or home isn’t very useful, and I’d probably agree. After all, by the time you witness some tragedy it’s probably too late to act. Still, it’s fun being able to spy on your boat, especially when it’s rainy and you’re longing for the next opportunity to set sail.

AC/DC
Right now all my gear is running off of AC 110V when the LAIKA is attached to shore power. But, all of the components are designed to run off DC (that’s what all those little transformers that come with our electronic devices are for!). I intend to create a little junction box and connect all the components together and run them off DC ship power. This will allow the components to continue operating while close to shore. If you plan to do something similar just make sure you maintain polarity for your connections.

SHOPPING LIST
If you’re considering something similar for your boat here’s a list of the gear I acquired and the online merchants I used:

Ubiquiti Bullet2HP What: WiFi amplifification device with embedded web server for control

Manufacturer: Ubiquiti

Vendor: WISP Equipment

Web site: http://www.wispequipment.com/products/UBIQUITI-BULLET2HP.html

Cost: $78
AIR802 Antenna What: Omnidirectional 2.4Ghz 12dBI gain antenna

Manufacturer: AIR802

Vendor:Amazon

Web site: http://www.amazon.com/AIR802-ANMA2412-Marine-Directional-Antenna/dp/B002E4T4RK

Cost: $79.95
POE-15 What: Provides power for the Ubiquiti Bullet2HP over CAT5 Ethernet

Manufacturer: Generic

Vendor: Wisp-Router

Web site: http://store.wisp-router.com/catalog/partdetail.aspx?partno=POE-15

Cost: $9.00
Netgear WGR614 WiFi Router What: Provides a WiFi network onboard using 802.11 b/g WiFi protocols. Almost any similar product will work just as well.

Manufacturer: Netgear
Vendor: Amazon

Web site: http://www.amazon.com/NETGEAR-WGR614-Wireless-G-Router-Wireless/dp/B0009M0I24

Cost: approx. $45 (used for approx. $19)
VueZone Video Network What: Provide an easy-to-setup and configure video surveillance system.

Manufacturer: VueZone
Vendor: Amazon

Web site: http://www.amazon.com/Avaak-SB2300-Personal-Network-Wireless/dp/B00486THVK

Cost: approx. $220

 

The next time your are out on our boat, don’t hesitate to whip out your smartphone or iPad. We’ll get you connected.