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Helm Controls
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Rules of Thumb



Helm Controls

I pondered hydraulic, pneumatic, fly-by-wire using stepper motors, and linier actuators, push-pull cables which are the standard for jet boats, pull-pull cables, and push-pull tubes.  I first opted for push-pull tubes similar to those on a Swiss J22 Fighter.

The fully mechanical approach had problems related to the difficulty in producing the components with very close tolerances that would not be effected by sea water. Also connections to the jet pump are really designed for cables and not push tubes.  Using tubes only would necessitate steering with a rudder only and not turning the nozzle on the jet pump.  That brought me back to a fly-by-wire system that I ended up building. Both designs follow as well as details for the engine throttle control.

Push-Pull Tube Controls

(1) Swiss J22 control stick.

With a suggestion from a kit air-plane builder  I decided to pursue tork tubes or better know of as push-pull tubes.  (1) Thanks to the Swiss J22 Fighter control stick design for the inspiration.  The external tube rotates while the internal tube moves front to back. I added bushings with o-ring seals to stop leaks. 

(2) (3) The internal tube must remain parallel to the outside tube because of the o-ring seals so the connection from the stick is not a fixed bolt.  Instead a fork on the stick that slips over a pin on the internal shaft.


(2) Version built from aluminum
pipe with o-ring seals.



The throttle is cable controlled, but I hope to find a cable that is water tight at the sick end.  The other end will be exposed in the engine compartment which will be dry.  This cable will move the engine throttle as well as a linkage in the engine compartment connecting it to a sliding potentiometer which will in turn control the thruster motor speed when submerged.  A simple push button thumb switch will be on the top of the stick that will allow the pilot to reverse the thrusters.  Two more switches will sense if the stick is in the left or right turn position, and these in combination with the reverse button on the stick will reverse only the left or right thruster as needed in order make tighter turns.

(4) A rudder will rise above the rear deck over the external portion of the Jet drive nozzle. By reversing a thruster, turns while submerged could be made with out a rudder, but a rudder will allow for more gradual turns will allowing both motors to push the boat forward. Front and back motion on the stick will pivot the thrusters and dive planes 180 degrees down and up to control depth.  When the stick is moved to its full forward position it will lift the modified clean-out plug on the jet drive, effectively opening a 3 inch hole in the hull in order to flood the hull for diving.   After surfacing a bilge pump will be used to pump the water out of the engine's snorkel and once the engine is started the clean-out port will again be opened, this time the water will be sucked from inside the hull by a ventury effect.  Hopefully that will be enough.  If  not, then I will have to fine a way to obstruct the normal intake port.  Like wise when the stick in moved to its full rear position, it will cause the jet drives' reverse gate to drop.  This arrangement is designed to be as simple as possible, combining the same controls for surface and submerged operation, and almost everything needed being controlled with only one hand. The remaining controls will allow adjustments for the ballast in order to adjust the subs buoyancy and trim, and allow for the legs to be deployed and retraced for setting the sub down on the bottom.

There are a few problems with this approach.  First, since the stick in the cockpit is between the passengers, and not between one persons legs, someone is going to have to move their leg for a hard turn.  Second if the jet pump nozzle were to turn left and right as it normally does, it would effect the jam the push-pull tube that controls the reverse gate.  So they would have to be separated by adding a rudder below the jet pump for turns, and the jet pump nozzle would have to be fix in place, severely limiting the turn radius.

Fly-By-Wire Helm Controls

Experimenting with a Throttle Control

(1) OOPic control board. A
potential interface between a
joystick and motors.

(2) Testing the OOPic controller.

(3) Ultra Dynamics fly-by-wire

(4) Motors and sprockets to
drive helm push pull cables.

Limitations of push-pull tubes for helm control had me once again thinking about interfacing a joystick with electric motors that drive the helm.  I had decided to control the throttle with a 1/4 scale model servo. (1) The controller interface is was using was a $89 OOPic controller board from is only a 3 inches long yet loaded with features designed with the robot builder in mind. Servos are normally radio controlled, but they can easily be wired to the OOPic.  (2) I got used servo for $25 and wired it to the OOPic in short order.  Next I connect a small pot; think knob, to the OOPic that controls the servo.  All of this is going so well that it was really helping to reincarnated ideas of a complete Fly-By-Wire helm. 

With a Fly-By-Wire setup, I could sit in the cabin or on the cabin's roof and drive the boat with a simple joy stick.   The downside is that without spending lots of bucks, my fly-by-wire system will have relatively slow response, but if I just throttle down the engine, perhaps going slow into the turns is something I can live with. And with a front end shaped like a wedge, going slow into the corners is a good idea.

(3) Fly-By-Wire is not new to boats either, many ships use it and Ultra Dynamics at offers their Ultra Jet fly-by-wire system for smaller craft if you have the budget for it.  In order to get the desired reaction time these systems use hydraulics, or more specifically electro-hydraulics which use electronics to control hydraulic pumps and valves.  I however don't want to invest in or mess with hydraulics so I am going to try to utilize electric motor control and live with the slow response.  If this fails then I'll fall back onto the manual design I already have for the helm.

Thinking Aloud

Inspiration comes from the unexpected places when using Google. Searching for joystick helm controls led me to They outfit sail boats with automated gear so that they can be sailed by paraplegics and quadriplegics with a joystick or even a mouth piece control.  Sailing when you can't swim.  Think about that one.  I though I was adventurous.  

I now envision an analog joystick mounted on a 4 x 8 x 2 inch box along with the LCD and a few buttons for things like the flood valve and engine start and kill switch.  Inside the box would be the power supply, an OOPic control board, and a mess of wiring. The OOPic's job would be to interface between the joystick and the motors that move the jet pump nozzle, reverse gate as well as the thrusters.

Another Experiment

(4) The rudder and reverse gate would be controlled by push-pull cables attached to a sprocket that is driven by a windshield wiper motor further reduced by a drive chain to another sprocket.  The windshield wiper motors have simple position switches that can be connected to an I/O line on the OOPic and the chain will not allow slipping so the position of the helm and reverse gate will always be know.  An on/off switch joystick like the Atari joystick on old arcade games would be workable, but an analog joystick that uses variable resisters or pots would be able to measure had hard the movement is.  It would then be possible to control the motors with a variable speed controller, using the 36 volt system.  So a small movement would power the motors at slow speed and a hard movement would run them at full speed.

Simplifying the Idea and Building It.

In an effort to simplify the fly-by-wire controls and reduce the number of points for failure, I am going to move first try a steering and reverse gate control that does not use the OOPic controller card.  Just a simple 4 switch, arcade type joystick that controls relays that run motors in either forward or reverse which are connected to push-pull cables which are connected to the jet pump. Limit switches stop the motors so when the limit of the cable is reached. I'd like to use Solid State Relays (SSR) which are much more reliable that electromechanical relays, but most all solid-state relays are Single-Pole Single-Throw, Normally Open (SPST-NO) devices and specialized SSR's are expensive.

These system breaks down into two parts, actuators that control the Rudder, Reverse Gate and Dive Planes, and the Helm Control Box up in the cabin with the switches.

Rudder, Reverse Gate and Dive Planes

While playing around with the linier actuators, I have decided that the speed is going to need maximized.  Waiting 3 seconds  for the reverse gate to drop just seems like too long.  So I now plan to power the actuators at their rated 24 volts and possibly 36 volts.  That is too much power for reed switches so I'm back to relays.  For now I'll just go with simple mechanical Double Pole - Double Throw relays with normally closed push button switches for the limit switches.

(5) Testing linier actuators with
push-pull cables on leavers.

(6) Helm actuator box.


(7) PVC Unions used to connect
cables to the box so that can be
removed as needed.

(8) Plastic guide rails cut from the
wife's Teflon cutting board.

(9) Limit switches

(10) Relay block with wax
around the connectors

(11) Top of relay block after
connectors were potted
with epoxy.

(12) Wax remove to expose the

(13) 4PDT relay block built
using individual sockets.

(14) Seal the back of the sockets
as this side is face down when
pouring the epoxy.

(15) Box sealed with epoxy.

(16) Helm box mounted.

(17) Beefier replacements for
broken actuator arms.

(5) To further increase the speed of travel and to allow for the rate of travel to be modified I have designed a box that connect the push-pull cables to the actuators with leaver arms.  These actuators have loads of power even at 12 volts so the leaver arms will allow an adjustable amount of power to be converted into speed. 

(6) The actuators an leavers were enclosed in an ambient box to help prevent water from entering the push-pull cables. (7) The cables connect to the box through PVC Unions, so they can be disconnected and moved if needed.  The cable will be epoxied into the outside section of the union and the other side of the union will be epoxied to the box. 

The same leaver that controls the reverse gate on the jet pump will also control the pitch of the thrusters since the jet pump is only used on the surface and the thrusters only used when submerged.

(8) The leavers need to be supported so there is no chance for them to collide with each other and I also need a place to mount the limit switches. Nylon is easy to cut and makes great low friction bearing blocks and guides where there will not be a lot of heat build up.  The cheapest and most convenient source are those plastic kitchen cutting boards.  I always thought ours was about 2 inches longer that was needed.

(9) The limit switches are mounted in the slots where they can easily be adjusted. The switches are "normally closed" so when the button is depressed by the leaver the power to the relay switch will be broken, the relay will open and the actuator motor will stop. As long as the switch is held open the helm will not travel any further in that direction.

(10) (11) (12) The relays are assembled into a do-it-yourself relay-block made from 1/4 inch acrylic.  The wire connectors were potted with wax before the being potted with a layer epoxy.  This will allow the relays to be unplugged and replaced. All of the wires are connected to a screw terminal block that will make connecting power, motor and control cables easier.

(13) (14) I build a similar 4 relay unit for 4PDT relays but I used relay sockets for that unit. The relay side of the sockets are face down when the epoxy is being poured into a temporary mold and you have to be careful to seal the back side of the sockets or you'll be digging epoxy out of the contacts.  This worked but on a rebuild I used dip relays and just soldered the wires directly to the pins.  That worked much better.

(15) Only the front face of the box is 3/16 inch, the rest of the box is 1/8 inch and MIG welding 1/8 inch is difficult enough without worrying about pin holes that may be left in the joints, so to make the box pressure tight the inside is coated with 2 part epoxy paint.

(16) The completed box mounts one the inside wall of the hull. Like the other boxes in the hull, this one will have an ambient air supply line connected to it so that the air pressure inside of the box will remain the same as water pressure surrounding the box.  The size of the box is kept to a minimum in hopes that it can be close to naturally buoyant.

(17) I wired up the relays to wrong limit switches and the actuators had no problem breaking the arms.  :)   The arms are sturdier, but the limit switches are also now wired in correctly.



Helm Control Box

(1) Helm Electric Diagram

(1) Helm Control Box

(2) Helm Control Box

(3) Helm Actuator Box

(4) Actuator Box Relays

(5) Relay Block Connections

(6) Minn Kota Thrusters


(7) Minn Kota Speed Controller

(1) A simple Fly-By-Wire system will allow full surface and submerged helm control from a couple of toggle switches.  The forward and reverse toggle will operate a linier actuator that moves two push-pull cables. One to pitch the thrusters up and down, and the other raise and lower the jet pump's reverse gate. A left and right toggle switch will move the jet pump's nozzle left and right as well as control the power to the thrusters when submerged.

The Helm Electrical Diagram shows the Helm Actuator Box relays and limit switches on top, the center is the Helm Control Box toggle switches and pots, and the thruster relays and Minn Kota speed controllers are on the bottom.  The thruster relays and Minn Kota speed controllers will be housed on the back of the cabin wall. In order to control both thrusters in concert, a single1K dual pot mounted on the side of the Helm Control Box. The wires for this are shown in dark blue in the wiring diagram.

(2)(3) The Helm Control Box has toggle switches that drive linier actuators using DPDT relays and adjustable limit switches in the Helm Actuator Box. (4) There are two relays for each actuator, one to extend and one to contract. Limit switches control the distance of travel.  The relay block is connected to the actuators and the wiring harness with a terminal block. (5) The Actuator Box Relay Block Connections diagram is shown.

(6) Submerged operation relies primarily on the thrusters but the operation of this is integrated with same steering controls used on the surface. The thrusters are two, Minn Kota, RipTide trolling motors that produce 101 lbs thrust each and use 36 volts and 46 amps at full power.  2, 10 awg wires run from the each speed controller to power the motors.


(1) When both thrusters are running in forward, they can immediately be flipped to reverse thrust by pressing a button, labeled "Fast Stop Reverse" in the diagram.  This trigger activates a circuit that passed through the relay switches labeled A and D and activates relays B and C.  The B and C relays connect a secondary 1K dual pot shown in light blue.  The secondary pot mounted on the top of the box will be set to a resistance that reverses the thrusters to a desired force.

To turn left or right, the thruster on the inside of the turn will be switched off. Two 60 amp normally closed relays simply power down the whole speed controller by opening the power feed line from the battery. Using the off circuit that is  part of the Minn Kota's wiring is not possible because it requires the pot to be in the center position.

To tighten the turn the process gets complicated.  If we are already in a left turn we want to reverse the left thruster but keep the right thruster pushing forward.  The key is that the left toggle switch that activated relay "A" also de-activated the right thrusters ability to reverse.  So now if the "Fast Stop Reverse" button is pressed the "B" relay is activated which both opens the "Stop" circuit and connects the "Reverse Thruster Speed" pot to the left thruster speed controller, and the left thruster runs in reverse.

Note, that the diagram for the sake of simplicity only shows a single connector from the pots to the relays and on down to the speed controller.  Each pot actually has 3 connectors, so the relay will not actually be the DPDT relay shown, but a 4PDT relay.

Since thrusters are not always needed on the surface a DPST on-off toggle switch will disable all of the thruster relays by opening the negative side for all the the relay coils, as well as opening a 100 amp solenoid relay that provides power to the two speed controllers.  Doing provides an added level of safely for isolating the thrusters as well as eliminating any stand by power loss.

Fly-By Wire - Do Over

So, there I was troubleshooting the thruster relays when I figured out that I needed to reverse negative and positive on the helm actuator box so it would match the polarity of the thruster relays.  Easy enough, but I forgot that making the helm actuators move the opposite direction would send them toward a limit switch that only stops movement in other direction.  BANG crack, GRRRrrrr, BANG...."Dame It"!  The actuator managed to break off both mounts, and the rip apart it's lead screw nut. Even better, I didn't know about the lead screw nut problem until after I spend a day rebuilding the mounts in the box.  Then I learned that Linak does not supply parts for their actuators.

So I decided to go with a new approach.  The actuators would no longer be housed in a water tight box, but sealed and air compensated like the other actuators on the sub. I'd also switch to 12 volt actuators with built in limit switches, and have a separate actuators for the jet pump's reverse gate and the dive plan angle. Mainly for ascetics, I did not like the downward angle on the dive planes when the jet pumps gate was in the open position for forward travel. 

(1) Linear Actuator

(2) "Dive Plane" switch added.

(3) Dip Relays

(4) 4 relays in the control box

(5) Soldering in the dip relays

(6) Couch Potato

(7) Not the best wiring.

(8) Replaced the power wires
and added an ambient air line.

(9) Goop used to seal up any
potential places for leaks.


(10) Great stuff!

(10) Three new actuators ready
to install, almost.

(1) Getting new linear actuators from is not cheep at around $130 each, but it does let you select the speed and stroke length. These units also have limit switches.  The only draw back is that the limit switches not adjustable. So if you buy an actuator with a 3 inch travel, you can't adjust the limits switches to 2 1/2 inches of travel. 

Having limit switches built into the actuators mean I did not need to add my own or use the relay that accompanied my limit switches, so it eliminated 4 relays.

The ability to select actuators geared for high speed over high force also meant that I could power them from the 12 volt system, and eliminated the need for 36 volt power in the helm control box. 

(2) Adding a separate actuators for the dive planes also required adding another switch to the helm control box.  The new "Dive Plane" switch acts in similar fashion to the "Rudder" switch.  When these are "on", the rocker buttons operate the actuators for these items as well.  So when the "Rudder" switch is off, then the "Turn" left and right rocker switch only controls the left and right thrusters.  And when the "Dive Plane" switch is off the "Fwd/Dive" - "Rev/Ascend" rocker only operates the jet pumps reverse gate for surface control.

(3) I also decided to avoid potting the 4 relays that control the thrust direction for the two thrusters.  After a little searching and some testing I settled on dip relays.  They are much smaller and capable of 1 amp of current even though most of the contacts only switch from one potentiometer adjusted to the forward seed to another that is adjusted for the reverse speed. 

(4)(5)(6) The compact dip relays allowed for all 4 to be housed in the helm control box, just under the reverse speed setting pot.

(7) The Firgelli linear actuators are fairly well sealed up right from the factory.  The lip seal on these units held a few pounds of pressure so there are good enough.  I've has to added better lip seals to other Firgelli actuators.  However when looking for a good place to tap the unit with an ambient air line I removed the gear cover where the power enters and only needed to gently pull on the wire connections to get them to part.  The other two units were better, but the problem is they only twist the wire connections together and then heat shrink wrap them.

(8) By replacing the factory power cord with two 16 gauge wires, it left plenty of room for a 1/4" pneumatic air line. I soldered the wires in then put heat shrink tube over the connectors and attached the pneumatic line with more heat shrink.

(9) After putting the cover back on, the screws and seams were all covered over with my new favorite stuff: Goop. It's tooth paste like consistency and fast dry to touch time make it a pleasure to work with instead of epoxy.  It's not as durable as epoxy, but it's more durable than automotive RTV.  

(10) The shaft on these actuators is hollow.  The end is solid, but it is just a plug that is friction fit.  So I will need to make a suitable end for connecting the push-pull cables that connect to the Berkley Jet Pump's rudder, reverse gate, and the dive planes.

Engine Throttle Control

(1) High capacity servo.

(2) Servo tester.

(3) Servo controller powered by
a DC-to-DC, 5 volt output

(4) The DC-to-DC power
supply and servo controller
potted in epoxy.

(5) Servo mounted on a bracket
and connected to the diesel
pumps throttle arm.

Now that I have eliminated using the OOPic control board for the helm's steering it makes since to simplify the servo control for the throttle  too and eliminate the OOPic card altogether. (1) So now the engine throttle will be operated by an RC servo that is controlled by a servo tester. 

(2) The servo tester is a very simple circuit, I'm almost ashamed I paid $20 for it. I removed the button that is not need for my purposes and also de-soldiered the pot which I had hoped was not soldered onto the board when I selected the unit.  The trick to de-soldiering is using solder wick, or some stranded copper wire coated with flux to suck-up the solder away from the connection.

(3)  I then rummaged through my old project box and turned up a nice little AT&T, 2 amp 12 volt to 5 volt DC to DC regulator.  It was cheaply potted with plastic that was easily pulled away.  (4) I then wired the parts together and potted them together in the box that the servo tester board came in, being sure to test the unit as I went.

(5) A simple aluminum bracket replaced the normal throttle cable bracket. It bolts to the air intake and supports the servo that is then connected to the throttle arm with a linkage.  There will be a lot of heat on the servo, especially when the engine is shutdown and the fresh air stops flowing in. To protect the servo it will be wrapped with insulation and feed a steady flow of cool air from the ambient air supply line that pressure compensates the engine compartment when submerged.

Links  Teleflex 43BC Push Pull cables for Berkeley Jet drive.  12 ft for $63. Linak Linier Actuators McMaster - Great place to find what you want but check around for a better price.  Grainger Stainless steel hardware -- some items are bargains others are overpriced. Motion Industries  Tulsa: 7302 E. 38th st.  (918) 627-0011  Pneumatic Fittings: Tube is 1/4 inch, Threads are 1/8 inch pipe. Electronics Electronics