When one draws a mental picture of thermal imagers aboard you might picture an expensive small white dome on a hardtop or arch of a gleaming yacht – and you wouldn’t be wrong. You would have imagined one of the best-known varieties of this technology and indeed they are more common as time goes by. Just walk down a slip of any marina today and there is a good chance you will find them, but they are not the only option out there, particularly to owners of smaller boats who don’t have the room or budget for such a fine piece of electronics.
Boaters today have a wide array of possibilities when entering the world of thermal imaging. The truth is that thermal imaging not only allows for seeing in poor visibility conditions (even in daytime glare) like never before but also works well as a man overboard recovery tool; as onboard diagnostic equipment; a personal safety tool and even a great way to find a dog that has jumped off the boat and scarpered. Now, not only are fixed mount units very capable, but also small handheld scopes and even smartphone attachments that, in concert with an app, turn your smartphone into a thermal imager.
It used to be that the fixed mount thermal imagers were the top of the line units with the best capabilities for boaters. This is still the case with many models such as those from FLIR, Golight and others. However, true performance quality comes from the thermal detector sensors at the heart of the device, and these can now be found in handheld thermal imagers.
Higher detector resolution equates to a better image and more sensitivity to temperature differences and greater temperature ranges.
Today there are a number of high quality handheld monocular and binocular scopes that perform well for navigators where a fixed mount unit is not practical. There is even a small smartphone plug-in from Seek Thermal that claims an effective range of up to 1,800ft (545m) with a thermal sensor of 205 x 156. If you don’t want to use your phone you can always go with a handheld version with a built-in display screen, a range of 900ft (272m). A built-in LED flashlight is included.
Thermal sensors are made up of pixels and are similar in theory to the way a digital camera sensor is made. Like a digital camera the more pixels on a sensor the finer the resolution of the image. With sensitivity to detect differences as little as 0.01 degrees Celsius the difference in the image can be drastic. Don’t get confused, however, with detector and display resolution. You may have a high-resolution display screen but with a low resolution detector the image will not be as clear.
Scopes such as the FLIR Ocean Scout represent good quality handhelds that work well for those not looking for a fixed mount unit. The Ocean Scout 240 can detect a man overboard at 1,150ft (348m) and a boat at 2,940ft (890m) with its 240 x 180 detector. The 320 has a detector with a resolution of 336 x 256 and can see a man overboard at 1,800ft (545m) and a boat at 5,085ft (1540m). The 640 with a 640 x 512 detector can display a MOB located 3,740ft (1133m) away and a boat 9,840ft (2982m) away. Of course the price goes up as the resolution rises. These monocular type scopes are rugged for marine use and are simple to operate. Just power it up and view what you couldn’t before.
The Smartphone units available from FLIR and Seek Thermal are ideal as a valuable diagnostic tool aboard and reside at the lower end of the cost spectrum. By connecting them to your phone and selecting their respective app you now have a fully functioning thermal imager that can detect water leeks, blockages, exhaust issues, electrical problems and even long-term water and structural damage onboard. Seeing behind bulkheads and finding issues at the source has never been easier. You can even use them to measure temperature accurately. After borrowing one from a friend and discovering overheating issues before they became catastrophic, I am now convinced that I must have one in my onboard tool kit.
Like all new technology the wow factor can sometimes be outweighed by the cost of having the latest and greatest. But prices are reduced and models are more varied and plentiful than in years past. Once you have used a thermal scope on the water, be it fixed mount (with a fixed sensor or with pan and/or tilt), a high quality handheld scope or a phone mounted unit, you will almost certainly want to budget for one of your own.
Glenn Hayes is a freelance photographer and writer living in West Central Florida. Specializing in marine and location photography, his work covers commercial, editorial and fine art work. www.HayesStudios.com