Flir First Mate MS - Handheld Thermal Imager

Nearly 2 months ago a product arrived on gCaptain’s doorstep that brought a smile to our faces, Flir’s First Mate, Handheld Thermal Imaging, Camera. The unit itself is small, about the size of your average SART, and, at a street price of around $2500, relatively inexpensive but those attributes are only the beginning.

Our unit arrived packaged neatly in a Pelican Case and was ready to use without much configuration or reading of manuals. Like Apple fans say, “It just worked”.

And the results were impressive. Once powered on, the unit quickly showed an image of my surroundings which proved instantly valuable as I quickly found three air leaks in my house’s insulation and an overheating electrical powerstrip. Walking out my front door I spotted the neighborhood cat hiding in the bushes and could tell which cars on my block had been running in the last few hours.

But the real test came on the water. Arriving at my 40′ sailboat, we immediately began giving the product a workout starting with the vessel’s electrical cables. A recent audit of the boat told us the wire running to the boat’s anchor windlass was too small and might create enough heat to start a fire…. so we dropped the anchor, put a few reverse revs on the engine, and watched through the camera’s viewfinder as the windlass’ electrical cable heated-up. Fortunately, the wire itself never got too hot, but it’s connection to the boat’s battery terminals did.

With the terminals cleaned, and a potential fire avoided, we turned the unit onto the engine and shaft watching the heat signature for potential problems…. then we headed topside. On a moonless night in the quite harbor of Morro Bay, it was difficult to make out the surrounding boats and it was impossible to see anyone walking along the nearby shore.  But with the Flir unit in hand, the night sky was illuminated clear as day. The unit clearly works.

Thermal Imaging units have been around for a decade, many ships carry an expensive unit to assist during search and rescue operations during fires and many more cary inexpensive units, like Flir’s $1300 i3 Compact, in the engine room for maintenance tasks. Some even carry Flir’s top-of the line mast mounted units, like the M-Series, integrated into a vessel’s ECDIS system for SAR and navigation at night.  While thermal imaging cameras can be repurposed for use on the bridge, this comes against most expert’s advice… and for good reason.

The advantage of the Flir First Mate over fixed mount units like the Flir Voyager and those designated for other purposes, like the i3, is portability and ease of use.  Sure, the i3 is portable but it’s not designed for long-range use and more importantly, it’s not going to be available for immediate use if you have to call the Engine Room and ask for it to be sent up to the bridge.  The unit’s best use is for times when you need to know what’s happening around you NOW.  From security threats (like scanning the horizon or, if in port, terminal docks for security threats) to search and rescue, and avoiding fishing scows in crowded traffic lanes… you want a unit that’s immediately available and easy to use. You want a unit which you can hand off to your AB and, without much thought, let him or her effortlessly scan the horizon.

Sadly, most ships don’t have a FLIR First Mate or any thermal imaging unit on the bridge due to their inherent cost. To that I say, yes $2,500 is not cheap, but the price pales in comparison to a marine radar and is nearly as useful.  This should not be an excuse. The COLREGS clearly state that, “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances…”  If you do not have a thermal imaging camera (or similar device) aboard your ship, is it possible you are in violation of this rule? Expect this question to be asked by marine investigators and insurance companies in the near future.

Other potential uses of this tool include assisting fire-teams in searching for victims in smoke – the First Mate is not a replacement for a dedicated Infrared Locator like Scott’s Eagle 320 – but it could be of use to secondary search team in marine firefighting ops.  Additionally, with a built-in memory chip, the unit can record pictures and videos with the press of a button, potentially very useful if your vessel finds itself in court after a collision.

With all the positive features of the FLIR we did run into a few problems. First the unit took about 90 seconds to boot-up making it useless in most maritime security settings where a pirate or NGO is quickly advancing on your ship. Second the battery system was less than ideal; the First Mate unit takes 4 AA rechargeable batteries that can only be replaced with the assistance of a small screwdriver… not something that’s easy to use in the dark or aboard a rolling ship. In FLIR’s defense, the batteries can be recharged without disassembling the unit, but the system relies on old NiCad technology that does not have the longevity or shelf life, of today’s modern Lithium Ion batteries.

Good news came shortly after the conclusion of our test with the introduction of a newer version of the unit…. The First Mate MS. While gCaptain did not have a chance to test the new MS version (seen in the picture above) we are told it contains the “same thermal imaging technology as FLIR’s best-in class” models and has a few other advantages over our older test unit, most notably; instant start-up (no boot-up required), a Lithium Ion battery and a suggested retail price of just $1,999.  Now we are talking.

Related Video

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