FLIR First Mate, thermal in your hand

A significant product introduction at the NMEA Conference was the FLIR First Mate, a hand held thermal camera that's truly designed for marine use and will list for a hair under $3,000.  Mind you, it does not use light intensification technology, or a near IR illuminator, like most every other marine night vision monocular.  This is the real thermal deal, able to see long wave infrared radiation that has nothing to do with visible, or near visible, light.  Like the FLIR M-636 I've ...

8th October 2009.
By Ben Ellison

FLIR FirstMate.jpg

A significant product introduction at the NMEA Conference was the FLIR First Mate, a hand held thermal camera that’s truly designed for marine use and will list for a hair under $3,000.  Mind you, it does not use light intensification technology, or a near IR illuminator, like most every other marine night vision monocular.  This is the real thermal deal, able to see long wave infrared radiation that has nothing to do with visible, or near visible, light.  Like the FLIR M-636 I’ve begun testing, it can see in total darkness, and even in broad daylight it often sees in a usefully different way than your eye.  For instance, a MOB is going stand out like a light bulb regardless of water or skin color.  FLIR being FLIR, they took us all out on San Carlos Bay with a boat load of First Mates and other thermal cams…

Thus I can tell you that the First Mate has a nice hand feel, and is easy to master. The $4,000 pro model does have controls to enable 2x digital zoom and capture screens like the ones below, but the base model just has on/off, image polarity (white hot or black hot) and screen brightness controls.  The field of view is 24 degrees wide, about 3.5 times that of standard 7 x 50 boat binocs, so finding something out there is easier than you might think, and lens jiggle doesn’t seem a problem. 
   I believe both the screens below, gotten from FLIR, were taken from the same high vantage point, and have had their resolution bumped up from the thermal sensor’s 240 x 180 pixels (maybe that happens right in the First Mate), but the detail seems quite close to what my eye saw through the monocular from the boat’s top deck.  The day beacon in the first image is reported to be 650 yards away, and is probably right across from the resort we stayed in (visible, along with the mangrove islands, here on Google Maps).

650 yards to daymark.jpgThe screen below was definitely taken from the hotel, and possibly during the day, given how warm those wooden dock surfaces appear.  But I know for sure that you would see pretty much the same image no matter what time of day it was. And, having attended the thermal vision seminar at NMEA, I’m learning to understand some of the subtleties.  Every thing warmer than absolute zero emits long wave thermal radiation, often in proportion to its actual heat, but not always so.  Some materials are better emitters than others, and I guess the black Simrad lettering on that demo boat is a poor emitter, as is that metal roofing. Reflections are also a factor in thermal vision, and hopefully I can capture some examples in my M-series testing.
   I have little doubt, though, that a First Mate could be useful to navigation, and also to security around a marina or waterfront.  And maybe for other uses.  If I get to try one up here, for instance, I’d see if it would reveal the heat leaks in my house, or the skunks and coons in my back woods, and I’d also look for hot spots around Gizmo’s power panels and battery banks.  But FLIR makes no claims for these sort of uses, particularly the latter, noting that while the thermal sensor is the same as used in some of its thermography products, the First Mate’s optics are optimized for objects beyond 30 feet and its image processing for contrast.  Still, who wouldn’t want one (given a generous gadget budget)? 

Simrad boat.jpg


About the author:

Ben Ellison

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Ben Ellison is electronics editor for Bonnier Marine Group, specifically Yachting and Cruising World. He previously was electronics editor for Power & Motoryacht and SAIL, as well as a writer for Ocean Navigator. His blog posts appear courtesy of his website www.Panbo.com, which has 80,000 monthly readers worldwide.
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