FLIR First Mate MS

Recently a product arrived on gCaptain’s doorstep that brought a smile to our faces, so we tested it also at The Teak Rail. Flir’s First Mate, is a small, handheld thermal imaging camera about the size of an average search and rescue transponder (SART). At a street price of around $2,500, it’s relatively inexpensive. Flir is the parent company of Raymarine, which markets a nearly identical unit under the Raymarine name.

First Mate arrived packaged in a sturdy Pelican CasepastedGraphic.png and was ready to use with little configuration or manual reading. “It just worked,” as Apple fans say, and the results were impressive. The camera quickly showed an image of my surroundings that proved immediately valuable as it revealed three air leaks in my house’s insulation and an overheating electrical power strip. Walking out the front door, I spotted the neighborhood cat hiding in the bushes, and could tell which cars had been running in the last few hours.

The real test came on the water. Arriving at my 40-foot sailboat, we began giving First Mate a serious workout, starting with the vessel’s electrical cables. A recent audit of the boat had told us the wire running to the anchor windlass was too small and might overheat and start a fire, so we dropped the anchor, put a few reverse revs on the engine, and watched through the First Mate’s viewfinder as the windlass’ electrical cable heated up. 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 camera onto the engine and shaft, and watched their heat signatures, looking for potential problems. Then we headed topside. By then it was night, pitch-dark and moonless in the quiet harbor of Morro Bay. It was difficult to make out even the surrounding boats and impossible to see anyone walking along the nearby shore. But with the First Mate in hand, the night sky was illuminated as clearly as day, as were nearby boats and people. First Mate certainly works.

Thermal imagers have been around for a decade. Many ships carry expensive units to assist during search and rescue operations and fires. Many more carry less costly units, like Flir’s $1,300 i3 Infrared Camera, in the engine room for maintenance tasks. Some ships integrate top-of-the-line mast-mounted units from Flir’s M-Series Maritime Thermal Night Vision Systems into their Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) to help with search and rescue operations and night navigation. While thermal imaging cameras can be repurposed for bridge use, this goes against most experts’ advice, and for good reason.

Two advantages of the First Mate over fixed-mount units like Flir’s Voyager model, and others like the i3 designated for different uses, are the First Mate’s portability and ease of use. Sure, the i3 is also portable, but it’s not intended for long-range use. More important, it’s not going to be available immediately if you have to call the Engine Room and ask for it to be sent up to the bridge.

The First Mate’s best use is for those times you need to know what’s happening around you NOW. It’s good for checking for security threats when scanning the horizon at sea or, in port, the terminal docks. It’s also good for search and rescue work, and for avoiding fishing scows in crowded traffic lanes. For such tasks, you want a unit that’s available, easy to use, and which you can confidently hand off to your AB to let him or her effortlessly scan the horizon.

Sadly, due largely to their cost, most bridges don’t have a FLIR First Mate or any thermal imager. Yes $2,500 is not inexpensive, but the price pales in comparison to the cost of marine radar and the camera is nearly as useful. Also, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 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.”

Is the failure to have a thermal imaging camera, or similar device, aboard your ship a possible violation of this rule? Expect marine investigators and insurance companies to ask this question more and more frequently in the near future.

Other potential uses for First Mate include assisting fire-teams in their search for victims in smoke-filled areas. 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 teams in marine firefighting ops. Additionally, the First Mate’s built-in memory chip can record pictures and videos at the press of a button, a seriously useful feature if your vessel finds itself in court after a collision.

Despite the First Mate‘s many positive features, we did run into a few problems. First, the unit took about 90 seconds to boot-up making it useless for security settings in which a pirate or an NGO is quickly advancing on your ship. Second, the battery system proved less than ideal. The First Mate takes four AA rechargeable batteries that can only be replaced with the assistance of a small screwdriver — not an easy task 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 older NiCad technology that lacks the longevity or shelf life of today’s top lithium ion batteries.

However, good news swung up to our bridge. Just as we’d concluded our test, Flir introduced a newer version of the unit, the First Mate MS. The MS version (see picture) houses the “same thermal imaging technology as FLIR’s best-in-class” models and some other advantages over our older test unit, most notably instant start-up, a lithium ion battery, and a suggested retail price of just $1,999. Now, we’re talking!

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