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October 21, 2011

Advances in Night Vision

How thermal and low-light cameras aid piloting and fishing

Few who saw the movie The Silence of the Lambs could ever forget the final scenes where the serial killer stalks FBI agent Starling through a darkened house with night-vision goggles. If you’re like me, you kept hoping the agent would somehow perceive the killer’s presence. Remarkably, she did. She survived, and we all went home relieved.

The ability to see in the dark adds a whole other layer of awareness. That extra benefit on the water might also save your life.

During the past five years, more and more anglers have installed infrared (thermal) and low-light ­cameras aboard their vessels. These special “eyes” not only help anglers navigate at night, but also help them see water-temperature breaks, currents, birds and other marine animals that might signal fish.

“I can see hard temperature breaks of 3 to 5 degrees. It looks like the yellow-brick road,” says Capt. Bob DeCosta, who runs a 35-foot custom boat with a FLIR M-Series M626L thermal/lowlight camera out of Nantucket, Massachusetts (508-228-5074, albacorecharters.com). “You definitely see rips and tidal edges, and for us up here in the Northeast, we can see whales and birds that signal fish.”

Heat and Light

The use of night-vision cameras transitioned from military and commercial to recreational vessels as technology accelerated and prices began to drop — mostly within the past decade. FLIR Systems (flir.com) introduced Navigator, Voyager and M-Series mounted cameras followed by its handheld First Mate series in rapid succession.

“In 2006, we started installing thermal cameras in BMWs as a $2,000 option,” says Andy Teich, FLIR’s president. “We saw it as a useful feature for drivers. We used that automotive market to drive down the cost of thermal detectors and made them viable for other applications. Boating is kind of an ideal application for thermal imaging” — no ­streetlights and no forward-burning lights.

Thermal imaging differs from low-light viewing in several ways, though DeCosta says he uses both functions — flipping between the two views to see which provides the best picture in varying circumstances.

“Thermal works great in total darkness,” says Mike Bader, CEO of OceanView (nightboating.com), pointing out that the company’s top seller is the Apollo II, which combines thermal and low-light viewing. “But it seems the typical boater wants to cover all spectrums and use both technologies simultaneously at the helm.”

Thermal imaging requires no visible light to create a picture, while lowlight technology employs ambient light from the moon, stars, vessels or harbors. That ambient light bounces off remote objects and back to the camera to produce an image — the same way our normal vision works. But low-light cameras use very sensitive detectors and employ other ways to better gather the light that our eyes might not absorb.