Features June 2008 Issue

Flir Camera Redefines Night Vision Onboard

Thermal-imaging cameras are costly but have impressive abilities.

Flir Thermal-Imaging Cameras
The Flir thermal-imaging cameras should be mounted as high as possible and should be forward-facing.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s ship and aircraft crews have a relatively new weapon that gives them the upperhand in night-time maneuvers. Forward-looking infrared technology allows them to track evading vessels in poor weather and low visibility, even when optical night-vision gear is rendered useless by low clouds and rain.

This infrared thermal-imaging gear is now available to recreational sailors. Installing a thermal-imaging camera can enhance safety during nighttime operations by letting you see what is ahead and around your boat, even on the darkest or foggiest of nights. The cameras can aid in navigation, man overboard recovery, and security.

What We Tested

Flir Systems Inc., the largest designer, maker, and marketer of thermal-imaging cameras to both military and commercial users, has introduced an infrared camera system aimed directly at the recreational boating market. Its recently updated thermal imager, Navigator II, is available as a fixed mount or a pan/tilt camera.

Though prices for this gear remain out of reach of many sailors—the fixed mount sells for $5,000 and the expensive pan/tilt costs $9,000—we found no other infrared marine camera system with the features of the Navigator II available at a comparable price.

Flir ships thousands of camera components every month to non-marine manufacturers like BMW for use in high-end automobiles. According to Flir Vice President Lou Rota, these increased production volumes have led to enhanced features and significantly lower prices on entry-level marine-grade thermal-imaging cameras.

How We Tested

To see how well this gear works and what benefit it would have for the average Salty Joe, we temporarily installed the pan/tilt Navigator II camera to the T-Top of a center console powerboat Practical Sailor test boat. The accompanying joystick controller was attached to stanchion near the driver, and the video cable was hooked to a Garmin 5208 multi-function display. Power (12 volts DC) was supplied through ship’s batteries. We tested the camera system at night while cruising a narrow saltwater channel and a mangrove-lined creek with a bridge overpass.

Navigator II pan/tilt
Navigator II pan/tilt

Navigator II Fixed

The fixed-mount Navigator II is shipped with a fully marinized camera, the on/off switch, 25-feet of cable connecting camera and switch, 25-feet of video cable, and mounting hardware.

The camera stands just over 7 inches tall and requires a flat area about 4 inches in diameter for mounting. The camera needs to be mounted as high as possible, on centerline—likely on the mast, facing forward—and angled down enough to make sure a small portion of the bow can be seen onscreen. Doing so will allow users to maintain situational awareness and know where objects are in relation to the bow.

If needed, the video cable can be extended in 25-foot increments to 100 feet. Wiring the unit involves connecting it to a 12-volt power supply and hooking up the video cable to a compatible display unit.

The fixed field camera, which weighs 6 pounds, supplies a 36-degree field of view and is extremely easy to operate. Simply turn on the camera and display—then point the bow at anything you wish to look at.

Navigator II Pan/Tilt

Our test unit was the pan/tilt version. Hardware-wise, stepping up to the pan/tilt from fixed gets you a slightly taller camera that weighs 7 pounds and a joystick control unit instead of a simple on/off switch. The added camera height (just under 10 inches) is used to enclose the motor and gears that allow the camera to pan 360-degrees and tilt up or down 45 degrees. The controller has an on/off switch, the joystick for pan/tilt control, and several pushbuttons to operate other features. The "DIM" button controls the panel backlight brightness in three steps. "Home" returns the camera to a preset bearing relative to the bow of the boat and can be set by the user. "Zoom" toggles between normal and an electronic 2x zoom view. When the 2x zoom is active, an icon will appear onscreen.

Flir Navigator II Night Vision
The view above left is what the naked eye can see approaching a bridge at night. Above right is the same view through the Flir Navigator II with it set to black hot and night running mode.

Each press of the "Scene" button cycles between one of four modes of operation that include night running, day running, man overboard, and night docking. Each mode of operation varies the contrast level of the display slightly. Set the scene to a selection that gives the best picture for the current operating conditions. Each scene mode displays its own icon onscreen briefly to show what scene has been selected.

The B/W key selects one of five viewing modes. It is standard to view thermal images in white-hot mode where the warmest objects appear lighter-toned onscreen and cooler things tend toward grey or black. If your personal preference differs, you can choose to operate in black-hot, red-hot, rainbow, or fusion.

The first thing testers noticed was how clearly they could see several boats docked directly ahead at various distances as they eased off the unlit dock. We motored to a nearby channel to run the camera through its paces. Right away, we noticed how fast the pan motor moved it. In our opinion, it was too fast. It would have been easier to focus the camera on a specific object if the motor would pan the camera at a slower rate.

For objects to have a visual contrast onscreen, a difference in temperature as small as 0.04 degrees is needed. Of all the viewing modes, black-hot showed the most detail for us. Fishermen and their boats were clearly outlined with their bodies totally blacked. (Picture the dancers in the Apple Ipod commercials.) The standard white-hot mode appeared a bit too light for our particular situation. The other viewing modes were rather unimpressive.

When the 2x zoom was activated, resolution seemed to drop off and made it harder to see detail. We focused the camera on a concrete bridge about 300 yards in front of the boat and could clearly see the pilings, decking, and cars passing, even though we could not discern any of these details with the naked eye. It was actually quite impressive to be able to see so well at night.

Conclusion

Both Navigator II systems have some drawbacks, not the least of which are lofty price tags. Overall though, we thought the Navigator II pan/tilt offered valuable information not available from any other source like radar or night-vision gear or binoculars.

If we had the disposable income to spend on boat gear that we wish we had, we’d opt for the pan/tilt version because it can be panned and can display in something other than a white-hot mode.

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