FLIR M625 REVIEW – LET THERE BE LIGHT!
Nordhavn 62 Pendana – FLIR M625 (640×480) REVIEW
We have now returned from the Gold Coast and more importantly we have now used and tested our new FLIR (forward-looking infrared imaging) system for a total of four moonless nights at sea and as such, feel it’s now time to review what a reasonably expensive piece of kit is really like.
Just to recap (from earlier blog), the main reasons for adding a FLIR camera to Pendana were:
1./ To alleviate tension coming into an unknown port on a moonless night;
2./ To provide additional scope to deal with a MOB situation;
3./ To be able to spot unlit small fishing vessels, fishing buoys in and around the Pacific Islands and finally;
4./ To be able to see in the dark!
The FLIR M625 pictured above.
As an investment in a FLIR camera is not inexpensive or even one that can be taken quickly due to having to carefully think through the installation process, we thought long and hard about the perceived benefits of the system. At the end of the day we decided to go ahead with the FLIR camera and also decided (in for a penny , in for a pound), that we would pair the FLIR thermal camera with the new Furuno TZ9 due to the limited space left in Pendana’s pilothouse.
The Furuno TZ9 paired with the FLIR camera allows for FLIR’s popular M-Series line of thermal night vision camera to be controlled right from the touch screen. The touch screen enables you to change camera settings, optimize the video, take screen shots direct to SD card and even pan and tilt the camera directly. Engineered to utilize the latest technology, NavNet TZtouch opens the door to cutting edge WiFi features, such as tablet and smartphone apps, points of interest (POI), real time weather data, software updates and more and a little like the Splashtop app I mentioned in the previous blog via the TZtouch remote app you can operate your system remotely via your smartphone or tablet over your boats Wi-Fi system.
Pendana’s pilothouse with TZ9 highlighted.
With the decision made and with both the FLIR M625 (640×480) and Furuno TZ9 installed it was time to test the system for the very first time. For this test Pendana was taken on a quick 420nm run north to the Gold Coast and back south to Sydney. Each run would provide two full nights where the system could be put through its paces and, as luck would have it, both our trips would coincide with a new moon meaning that we were guaranteed a few very dark nights at sea.
The M Series FLIR camera uses cutting-edge Ethernet connectivity for easy installation, control, and interface with other on-board electronics. The rugged, waterproof gimbal enclosure provides a continuous 360° pan and +/-90° tilt field of regard for horizon-to-horizon visibility and Pendana’s camera is the higher resolution FLIR camera being the 640×480 model. All M-Series thermal cameras come with a 2x e-zoom function that lets you see further at night with the higher resolution option providing an additional 4x e-zoom for even greater reach. There is so much information available online regarding the FLIR cameras I will avoid rehashing it here. If you are interested in reading more then please visit http://www.flir.com. FLIR’s marketing information states that on a moonless night one can see a small vessel (and I do mean small – 2.3m x 2.3m for example) at 2,800m and a man in the water at 990m. So how did it perform?
FLIR Camera mounted on top of conning tower.
As we set off on the morning of October 25th I was joined with regular all round nice guys Captain Mark James and Grant Turner for the run north. Both these gentleman are seasoned mariners with far more experience at sea than I, and were, importantly, as keen as I was to put the FLIR through its paces. With Pendana humming along at 9kts making her way north, the FLIR system fired up, technical manual at the ready and with us all familiarising ourselves with every conceivable menu option, night couldn’t come fast enough.
As the sun set to our west our first night at sea was arriving with its usual punctuality and as the stars started to twinkle we were all in the pilothouse ready to play.
Ready to play…
On firing up the FLIR we were all, in a word, amazed! Night became day as we ventured north. Birds resting on the ocean surface ahead would fly away as Pendana approached and dolphins were clearly visible. I want to stress that this was a moonless night where the bow of Pendana was not visible to the human eye from the within the pilothouse. Wow, Wow, Wow! We were all thoroughly transfixed.
Dolphin dead ahead playing in the water.
I mentioned to the boys that if we could see birds and dolphins then perhaps we could see the cloud formations ahead. With that, I titled the FLIR skyward to reveal a perfect clear picture of the cloud formations which lay ahead of Pendana. Simply amazing!
Pointing the FLIR Camera to the sky revealed the cloud cover to our port forward quarter. Note the red icon on lower left of screen shows direction of camera. This is a great feature allowing one to know where the camera is pointed. This, together with the home button on the joystick controller, which automatically sends the camera to the dead ahead position when pushed, allows for quick panning and no loss of coordination or forgetting what direction you are looking in. Remember all these images were taken on a moonless night and with my handheld camera.
We were now keen to find a radar target which we could lock onto and soon enough a small blip appeared on the primary radar. As we approached within 2nms of the target we started to try and find the small boat using our FLIR. I must say that this was not possible until we were around 1nm from the small vessel (approx. 30-35ft in size) but once in sight the image was clear, crisp and one could almost see inside the small boat through its salon windows.
Vessel clearly visible at a tad over 1nm.
I was a little concerned that I couldn’t see the boat until we were 1nm away via the FLIR as the marketing and sales material clearly states that small vessels are visible at 2.8nm so I put it down to the fact that I was not used to the system and the images it produced at this stage.
On the following night while on watch alone, I was confronted with another radar target, this time it was a small sailing yacht off to my port hand side. At 1.5nms this yacht was clearly visible using the FLIR system and I started to feel a little better about the effective range of the FLIR system. Perhaps what it takes is practice, practice, practice and for what it is worth a larger screen may also be useful as the TZ9 is relatively small.
If there is one small downside to the unit it would be the screen’s output at night. Even dimmed down I found it a bit to luminous although when switching to red mode it was a little more palatable. I guess this is a small negative after what is a great system. Also, knowing what I know now, I will be linking the video feed from the FLIR into one of my larger Hatteland screens as to enlarge the image produced as I have no doubt this will make spotting targets further way much, much easier. One must remember the video feed from our FLIR for both trips was being viewed on a 9inch Furuno TZ9 and as such, I am convinced a larger screen would have allowed for great range to targets.
The M625 series does come with both a 2x and 4x zoom which are great but what would have been nice to have had is a wide angle option as well. A wide angle option would be particularly useful when coming into tight quarters allowing for greater range of view. A thought for the future perhaps!
Bow clearly visible with FLIR.
On our return trip to Sydney we again had a number of opportunities to test the system and again with great success. Who would have thought that seeing at night was possible! Turning night into day is what FLIR does.
Does the FLIR system do away with Radar or ECS (Electronic Charting Software)? Off course not and nor do FLIR suggest this is the case. What it does do, however, is provide another tool in the Captain’s kit to ensure the vessel remains safe at sea or in port and it is an additional tool that I believe is beneficial.
All in all, we were all very impressed with the FLIR system and the image quality it produced. There is little doubt that this upgrade will help alleviate any tension when coming into an unknown port on a moonless night, provide additional scope to deal with a MOB situation, is more than capable of spotting unlit/lit fishing vessels, fishing buoys in and around the Pacific Islands or any sea or ocean in the world and finally, the FLIR system truly allows the operator to be able to see in the dark!
Quotes from the highly experienced crew aboard Pendana were:
Run north, Captain Mark James – “A worthwhile upgrade that’s for sure”.
Run north, Captain Grant Turner – “Another tool to use among the many that will be worthwhile”.
Run south, Captain Steve Higginson – “Well, that just paid for itself”. (More to come on this comment shortly).
Run south, Captain Rob Pirani – “Thank god for FLIR”. (More to come on this comment shortly).
In relation to Steve and Rob’s comments above here is the reason these comments were made and why the FLIR system has, in fact, already paid for itself. As we approached our home port on our run south and while still some 20nms offshore, I headed down to the salon to turn on our salon lights to illuminate Pendana just a little more. That being said, however, one would have to be asleep at the helm not to see Pendana at night.
As we motored down the coast looking forward to our arrival we noticed a couple of radar targets. One, a lone target to our starboard side which we guessed was a yacht and the other target on radar was a fishing vessel about 6nms. As we got a little closer there was a yacht which we were now looking at via our FLIR system for a bit of fun. At around 2nms the yacht was visible on FLIR as it made its way north. Other than that there was nothing but a clear run ahead………. or so we thought!
Important to note at this stage that all three of us were on watch and in the pilot house as we were all excited with our pending arrival. With Rob and Steve keeping lookout and me at the helm cross checking the two radars while setting up our final approach we suddenly saw on our FLIR system, to our absolute horror, a yacht’s spinnaker in full flight and VERY CLOSE to Pendana slightly to our port side. It was clear within seconds, that this yacht had NO NAVIGATION LIGHTS ON was invisible on both radar systems and had no AIS. This unknown target also had nil, nada, zip, zilch, zero illumination! Evasive action required now!
I asked Rob to quickly confirm the vessel was, in fact, passing us to port while Steve threw on our spotlight and I immediately changed course 60 degrees to starboard. With the yacht in question now illuminated (courtesy of our very large spotlight) like a rock star singing in Madison Square Garden’s and with a number of very long blasts from Pendana’s Kahlenberg air horns, the folks on the Yacht started moving quickly and to our horror, tack to their port, i.e. head directly for us. With a scurry of activity on the yacht as they pulled in their spinnaker they just kept getting closer and closer and closer. A nightmare situation was un-folding!
After what seemed an eternity, probably less than two minutes in reality, the yacht passed to our stern within what we estimate 20-40mtrs (65-130ft) which is far too close on a moonless night. What they were doing running at night without lights on is another question altogether and one which I am determined to find out.
Above graphic hopefully clarifies what I am trying to say.
I have always maintained my greatest fear is small yachts which do not have radar reflectors on them and any unlit vessel at night. Part of our reason in getting the FLIR was to spot small unlit fishing vessels in the Pacific but to come across an unlit yacht here in Australia is, well, simply unbelievable.
Once we had passed the yacht and danger averted I tried to raise them on Channel 16 but my repeated attempts fell on deaf ears. As such, I contacted the yacht we had passed a little earlier to warn him of the vessel running to his stern without navigation lights on. I then asked if he knew the yacht in question to which he replied he thought he did as they were part of an open water race. With name of vessel, yacht club he hailed from and the owner’s name in hand, once safely in our home marina, I went about trying to make contact to find out why anyone, without a death wish, would sail at night with no lights on and without keeping a proper lookout.
A few days later I was able to speak with the owner of the yacht in question and found out what had happened. His explanation was that they were part of an ocean yacht race racing from Pittwater to Port Stephens (approx. 100nms) and when daylight had faded he had personally turned on the yacht’s navigation lights. However, sometime before our encounter one of his crew had leant up against the nav light switch and had inadvertently moved it from the on position to off and, as such, the lights were switched off. He also went onto explain that due to the high levels of phosphorescent that night, all remained unaware of this fact.
I explained to the yacht’s owner (whom I might add, was charming!) that his yacht was also invisible on both our radar systems and pointed out that our primary radar was of commercial shipping standard and that he was completely invisible. I further suggested that at the very least, a radar reflector be placed on the mast to which he agreed and while on a roll, I suggested also the installation of AIS. I am a huge fan of AIS and believe it should be an international standard for all vessels regardless of size in open water, and I may even go so far as say, it should be installed on all vessels in open and closed waters regardless of size. That being said, as racing is about speed and keeping a yacht’s weight down, I am not so sure he was convinced. Either way, it was good of him to call me and also good for both of us to now be able to draw a line under this episode and learn the lessons it had to teach – which I guess is, regardless of where one is in the world do not assume navigation lights are a given!
In closing, are we pleased that we have the FLIR camera on Pendana as we cross the world’s oceans? We sure are! Was it worth it financially? It sure is! Would we have made the same decision to install a FLIR system knowing what we know now? We sure would! There is no doubt that the FLIR system alone is just one part of the overall but anything that can add value and meaningful information to the person on watch has to be a positive. A big thumbs up to FLIR!