Night-Vision Cameras

Portable thermal cameras help you see in the dark on water and land.

One reason iPhones are popular is because they are portable—they work as well on your boat as they do at home. Portable products like iPads and iPhones are enjoying a wave of integration into boat systems, and handheld thermal imaging cameras and scopes are riding that wave. Thermal night vision cameras do what the human eye cannot because they see heat they are not dependent on light and contrast to create an image. Thermal cameras work both day and night and provide benefits beyond what you may think.

Handheld thermal imaging cameras by FLIR and Iris Corporation are similar to the fixed-mount thermal imaging cameras both companies offer. But since they are portable they can be used on both water and land. On the water, their ability to clearly detect dangers such as rocks, unlit buoys, jetties, vessels, commercial fishing gear, floating debris, and other objects give boat operators confidence to explore unfamiliar waters and let people keep fishing long into the night. In emergency situations, the thermal cameras can help boat captains and crew find people in the water. Thermal cameras can see the heat signatures of people and vessels in total darkness, as well as through smoke, haze, and light fog—nothing can help you find someone in the water faster than a thermal camera. A person floating in the water often only has his head visible, but this can show up on the thermal video display as a white ball against a black or dark gray background.

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Once sighted, it is important for rescuers to keep them in sight. A thermal imager allows vessel crewmembers to keep a person in the water in sight while maneuvering their vessel to pick up the victim. This improved situational awareness increases the safety of all involved and improves the chance of rescuing a victim at night and during the day, making thermal cameras a crucial asset.

“Two of our models allow you to connect the display with your MFD,” says Andrew Cox, FLIR maritime sales manager. “A lot of consumers can’t justify the cost of a mounted unit on their boat. With our First Mate II HM, the cost is about $3,000, and that gives you the video output for your MFD. So you have the functionality of a mounted unit on your boat, but when it’s the offseason for boating or you come off the boat for the day, you can use it for a lot more.”

FLIR’s product range begins with the First Mate II MS, which costs around $2,000 and is a marine scope. It doesn’t offer video output, but it’s small enough to fit in your pocket and offers ways to expand capabilities, including an extended lens that doubles its range. For example, the First Mate II MS is rated to spot a man bobbing in the water a quarter mile away and to detect a small vessel two-thirds of a mile away.

“Our most popular maritime unit is the waterproof First Mate II HM series,” Cox explains. “The HM307XP model with the large 655mm lens gives the camera much greater range capability. The HM307XP can detect a man in the water at three-quarters of mile, and it can detect a boat as far away as two miles.”

The cameras let you see clearly at night and show you things you might be missing during the day, but they do have their limitations since infrared energy doesn’t travel as far through heavy atmospheric moisture as it does through drier air. When it’s raining or when you’re enveloped by heavy fog, a thermal imager won’t see as far. It will still help you to see, just not as far.

Once people come off the water and start using it around the house and outdoors, they find a lot of different uses. For example, spotting animals or people in the dark has educational and safety value, which is why everyone from hunters to law enforcement are using handheld thermal imaging cameras. “There’s a good chance that the guy who goes fishing in his boat is also a hunter or a hiker,” says Tony Digweed, head of North American sales for Iris Corporation, which offers the NightSpotter handheld thermal imaging camera, currently the only handheld model the company offers. “When he comes off the boat he’s going to take his NightSpotter with him, and he’ll use it.”

The NightSpotter offers video output, is waterproof and retails for just under $3,000. The technology that both FLIR and Iris use for their handheld thermal imaging cameras is essentially the same.

Regarding a thermal camera’s resolution—the number of pixels used to capture thermal energy—the higher the resolution (larger number), the more pixels that are gathering energy, so the better image detail and range performance. This means that a higher resolution camera will typically let you see more detail, smaller objects and see them from farther away. With FLIR’s First Mate II MS and HM models, customers can choose 240 x 180 or full 320 x 240 thermal resolution. The Iris NightSpotter offers 384 x 288 thermal resolution.



Iris Corporation:

By Doug Thompson, Southern Boating January 2015

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