Night vision with FLIR
by Helen Hopcroft on 15 Jun 2007
The blackness of the night is overpowering. From out of the darkness comes the sound of a splash: you think you see something moving out there. Something big…There’s nothing marked on the charts that would explain a large object out here, miles from land. You grab a high powered torch from the cockpit but it only illuminates a small circle on the heaving sea. You hear the anxiety in your crew member’s voice: ‘What’s wrong?’ she asks. ‘What can you see?’ ‘Nothing’ you reply. ‘I can’t see a thing…’
The thermal imaging camera company FLIR understands that few people like sailing at night. It’s disorientating: familiar landmarks and lights can be hard to recognize. It’s difficult to judge distances. Most of all it’s the fear of the unknown which unsettles people. Ninety nine times out of a hundred there’s nothing to worry about. But the other one time it would be good to know what was out there.
FLIR has recently introduced their range of thermal imaging cameras to the Australian marine market. At the recent Sanctuary Cove Boat Show, FLIR had three new models on sale: the top of the line Voyager, the Mariner and the Navigator. Prices start from $7000 plus GST.
Thermal imagery cameras produce images of infrared or ‘heat’ radiation that is invisible to the human eye. The camera is able to produce images because of the temperature differences between objects. FLIR camera’s stream continuous images to the boat’s visual display unit: it’s like watching black and white television.
‘All objects give out energy’ explained FLIR’s Tony Kelly, who has been working with thermal cameras since 1993, and has a background in science.
‘Anything above zero degrees kelvin gives out energy and these cameras are looking at this particular part of the spectrum. We’re not looking at visible light at all. We’re basically looking at energy given out by all objects.’
‘It can be absolutely pitch black and the cameras will still see the energy given out by the object. That’s why they’re so useful at night. Because objects are still giving off energy and you can see these objects.’
Kelly says that the camera’s have a range of applications for marine users: at night for security, as a navigation aid and as part of their man overboard response. He says that the cameras are not intended to replace existing navigation equipment, but are an extremely practical aid.
‘People have got their radar and their GPS and all that other equipment, which is really useful, but there’s nothing like seeing what’s ahead of you…and this is what this allows you to do.’
He predicts that thermal imaging technology, which has already been picked up by the automobile industry, will eventually become common place in the marine industry.
‘We’re now supplying similar cameras to BMW, so in your series 7 cars in US and in Europe you can now get a thermal camera and that’s a FLIR thermal camera.’
‘It’s like GPS was 7 or 8 years ago. GPS 7 or 8 years ago was quite specialised, and pretty big and bulky. We’re sure that in a few years time thermal cameras will be just another accessory that you add to your boat.’
The introduction of thermal imaging technology into top end cars is one of the factors that have reduced the price of the cameras. Another factor is the size of the FLIR company: it’s the largest producer of thermal imaging equipment in the world.
‘The price is fantastic. The Navigator is $7000 plus GST and the Mariner is twelve and a half thousand. Some people think that’s pretty expensive, but for a thermal camera, that is just a fantastic price. Two or three years ago we didn’t have a camera for less than $70,000.’
FLIR technology is used extensively throughout global war zones, and by law enforcement agencies.
‘You’ve probably seen those shows with the bad guys being chased by a helicopter? 9 times out of 10 it’s a FLIR camera.’
Fortunately the Navigator, Mariner and Voyager models are exempt from US licensing requirements.
‘The thermal cameras are used extensively in the military. That’s why the licensing is required because the technology is military based…And they require licensing from the US State department…And that can take anywhere from three to four months, and it can be a real pain.’
‘With these cameras, because they’re geared to a lower frame rate, we can get around that. So there’s no licensing required. They’re basically off the shelf. People can order them and be delivered in a couple of weeks.’
No special training is required to operate the cameras: ‘they are nice and easy, you just turn them on and that’s it.’
Kelly says that sailors are buying the cameras for a number of reasons, but:
‘navigating at night is the number one reason that you would want it. Being able to see at night just gives great peace of mind to people.’
‘Whether its just coming into a port that you’re not familiar with .Or even areas that you are familiar with: maybe there’s a kayaker or a log in front of you. You can see it.’
They are also being purchased to help back up the boat’s existing man overboard equipment.
‘If someone does fall over, and its pitch black, they’ll stand out in the cold water, because you’re a lot warmer than the water. They’ll really stand out.’
Like Manhattan tower apartment block residents, who reportedly keep a close eye on a closed circuit channel which screens the coming and going of their neighbours, some people buy the cameras just to stay aware of their surroundings.
‘The other reason people say they like having the cameras is peace of mind and security. So when they’re anchored or if they’re docked they can be sitting back relaxing and be able to see anyone approaching.’
‘If they’re on a pier they can have a camera and see if anyone’s walking up towards their boat, for example. Or if they’re anchored, they can see anyone approaching. It’s the added peace of mind of seeing what’s going on at night.’
FLIR have recently signed a deal which sees their cameras offered as an accessory on new Rivieras.
‘We’re now in Riviera’s electronic catalogue. So when you’re buying a Riviera, it’s another box you can tick. It’s like with like: you’re buying the best with the best, and that’s what FLIR are.’
10 Business Park Drive
Notting Hill Vic 3168
Telephone: 03 9550 2800
Fax: 03 9558 9853
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