Raymarine’s Night Might

Raymarine’s new T-Series thermal-imaging cameras offer easy-to-use protection for nighttime navigation.

Raymarine T Series

Raymarine’s T-Series camera sends its images directly to the multifunction display.Courtesy Of The Manufacturer

To make sure that marine-electronics writers took note of the direction in which its new corporate parent intends to steer it, Raymarine lit up the night sky—literally. During an evening cruise as an opener to the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Raymarine ran a crew-overboard drill to demonstrate the capabilities of its new T-Series thermal night-vision cameras, technology that was originally developed for the military and commercial-thermography industry by FLIR Systems, a company that until recently wasn’t considered a household name by most sailors.

But before we get into the particulars of the product and how it integrates with Raymarine’s E-Series and G-Series navigation displays, let’s take a step back and look at how this partnership came to be in the first place, since you may not have heard the news. Back in May 2010, FLIR announced that it had acquired all of the assets of Raymarine Holdings Limited, a major player in the marine-electronics industry that was based in the United Kingdom. At first, this acquisition took some of us in the marine press by surprise; it seemed a sort of a David-and-Goliath story. Many in the industry have been covering and using Raymarine (www.raymarine.com) products during demonstrations and even on our personal boats for many years, but most regarded FLIR as a relative newcomer with a narrow-niche footprint in the marine-electronics industry. “How can this little company take over Raymarine?” I asked myself. “And why would they do it in the first place?” I got the answers to both of these questions during the demo cruise.

As it turns out, FLIR isn’t a small company. In fact, the company’s website reports that “the company has been supplying thermography and night-vision equipment to science, industry, law enforcement, and the military for over 30 years.” And as for the logic behind the acquisition, the website reports that FLIR plans to expand Raymarine’s product-line breadth by integrating thermal-imaging cameras with Raymarine’s other electronics, which include display, radar, autopilots, and instrumentation. So our cruise, then, was intended to give us an inkling of what the P.R. guys were getting at. And when they said, “The acquisition furthers FLIR’s strategy . . . by dramatically increasing its maritime-distribution network with the addition of Raymarine’s 1,000 dealer outlets and 400-plus marine original-equipment manufacturers,” the acquisition suddenly started to make a lot of sense.

Turning our attention now to the demonstration at hand, FLIR had set up several tabletop displays of Raymarine’s E-Series widescreen displays, each taking video feeds from T400-Series cameras, which look like small R2D2 robots with two eyes, one mounted above the other. While the T300-Series cameras offer thermal (heat-sensing) night vision only from a single imaging sensor, the T400s combine thermal imaging with a high-performance low-light video camera, providing the best of both worlds for superior nighttime navigation. Thermal sees in total darkness but not through rain, while a low-light camera can see through rain when there’s some ambient light available.

This was a perfect night for such a demonstration, since it was moonless and nearly pitch black in the Intracoastal Waterway cove in which Raymarine staged this event. My first look at the E-Series widescreen clearly showed a combi-style sportfishing boat with a swimmer in the water about 30 feet abaft the swim platform. The swimmer was waving to us, and the resolution was so good that I could even see that he was wearing a life jacket—and we were a good 200 feet away from the boat and the swimmer. Without the assistance from the camera, I found it nearly impossible even to see the boat, and I couldn’t see the swimmer at all. Imagine the time- and life-saving advantages that this setup would provide in a rescue situation if a crewmember really did fall into the drink!

Then, as we all peered into the blackness trying to see the fishing boat, two more objects appeared on the screen. Each kayak carried its own red/green running lights, which were almost impossible to see with the naked eye. If you were sailing along, there’s no way you’d see either of these kayaks until you were on top of them. This was great proof of the potential for collision protection, even involving very small vessels. The heads of both paddlers showed up as “white hot” on the E-Series screen, as did the swimmer’s.

Next we got a demo of how the controls work for the T400. The camera is the first thermal-imaging system to be controlled by Hybridtouch technology, when integrated with an E-Series display. Just slide your finger across the screen and the camera pans accordingly, and in real time, so there’s virtually no delay in camera movement. Slide your finger upward and the camera tilts as well. The range for panning and tilting is a full 360 degrees horizontal and up to 90 degrees vertical. This provides horizon-to-horizon coverage and the convenience of using typical touch-screen control to pan/tilt the camera; the optional traditional keypad/joystick would be very helpful in rougher seas.

Once interfaced with either the E-Series or G-Series displays, either of the FLIR/Raymarine cameras will generate a graphic “thermal camera” icon on the display’s homepage. Touch the icon once to get the thermal image in full-screen mode. You’d definitely want to use this mode if you were in an actual search-and-rescue situation. But under normal nighttime-running conditions, you’ll probably choose the split-screen mode in which, for example, you can show the night-vision on the left panel, the electronic chart on the upper-right panel, and the radar on the lower-right panel.

Think about the application for a moment. You’re sailing along at night and spot a target on the radar. You can’t tell at this range whether it’s one vessel or two, so you flip on the camera—and sure enough, dead ahead of you is a small boat towing another. They looked like one boat on the radar, but now that you can see that there are two, you can act accordingly to change course and avoid them. The company is currently working on a Cue and Slew feature that lets you touch an onscreen radar or Automatic Identification System target and have the camera immediately focus on it.

Or how about this one: I was skippering a 44-foot ketch on a delivery from New York to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and we were caught in a big storm off the coast of Cape Fear, in North Carolina. I had to find a safe harbor fast. Unfortunately, the charts don’t show buoy locations in that area due to shifting sand shoals, so since it was already dark, I had to rely on a verbal description of the channel from the U.S. Coast Guard via radio. That almost ended in disaster: We wound up hard aground on the beach and had to call in a Mayday. A 41-foot Coast Guard utility boat showed up, shot a monkey’s fist with towline over my boom, took us in tow, and then, incredibly, the Coast Guard boat ran aground while towing us in. We really could’ve used a T-Series camera that night!

As far as working distances go, the ranges, depending on the camera model you choose, are about 1,500 feet to spot a person in the water and up to 1.2 miles for larger objects, such as boats. That kind of range would’ve been plenty for me to spot the channel buoys and navigate to shore safely, and because virtually everything has a “heat profile,” Raymarine says the cameras can even pick up semi-submerged rocks and icebergs.

With camera or not, any of the windows on the E-Series or G-Series displays can be customized to show other feeds, including fish-finder information, a "sailing" mode, dual-radar input, and even Sirius marine-weather maps and satellite radio. And for even more utility, the E-Series can accept a total of four video-input sources (nine for the G-Series), including satellite TV, onboard marine monitoring cameras, and DVD entertainment. And if that isn't enough, the unit can even activate and control Raymarine's SmartPilot X-Series autopilots directly from the chart-plotter interface while monitoring engines, generators, and sensors. So what we've really got here is a complete command-and-control system on displays that can be as big as 19 inches, depending on which model you choose.
When it comes to choosing which camera is right for your needs, they're offered in two different resolutions: the standard 320- by 240-pixel Q.V.G.A., which includes a 2X zoom feature, and high-resolution 640- by 480-pixel V.G.A., with 4X electronic zooming for the sharpest, clearest image possible. Our little on-water demonstration showed just how sharp that can be.

And in terms of camera installation, Jim McGowan, Raymarine’s marketing manager, says, “Nothing special is required to mount it. Several of the electronics-mount companies offer mast-mount and backstay-mount solutions for Raymarine T-Series and FLIR M-Series cameras. The camera can also be mounted upside down if you prefer. We refer to it as ‘ball-down’ mounting. In that type of installation, it might be possible to hang the thermal camera from the underside of a radar-scanner mast mount.” Mounts are available from such companies as Edson, SeaView, PYI, and Questus.

McGowan points out that cruising sailboats have one other factor to consider when planning the camera-mounting location. “The only major consideration on a sailboat installation is the sails themselves,” he says. “Make sure that they’re not going to strike the camera. Consider, too, that the camera can’t see through them,” since the sails have their own heat profile. This could cause a problem, for instance, if you mounted the camera on the mizzen mast and find yourself on a run with the main fully eased out. The best solution is to mount the camera as high as possible to avoid sail interference.

Pricing on the T-Series cameras ranges from $9,000 to $20,000, so you won’t find them on every boat in the marina. But in a press tour last fall, FLIR and Raymarine representatives made it clear that they envision thermal cameras being more common than radar on boats within a short number of years. In the meantime, purchasers will benefit from Raymarine’s recently announced Rapid Care program, which provides replacement units should any of their devices fail within the warranty period. And that warranty period, as of January 1, 2011, has been extended for all Raymarine gear from two years to three.

I can tell you from experience that if you do even a little nighttime navigating, you’d be able to do it with a lot less stress with Raymarine’s T-Series thermal-imaging systems aboard. And if you do a lot of overnight bluewater cruising, these cameras could go a long way toward making sure your next crew-overboard situation has a happy ending.

Captain Chris Kelly is a veteran navigator who writes frequently about marine electronics.