February 02, 2012

Cat vision comes to sea

It has been a long while since I have got excited about new gizmos in the wheelhouse, but the integration of thermal imagery with a conventional marine radar throws up so many interesting possibilities that I wish I am at sea when these systems become commonplace.

The five billion dollar market-cap thermal imagery company FLIR bought the well-known marine electronics outfit Raymarine in the middle of last year; the new Kelvin Hughes’ MantaDigital multifunction display seems to be the first serious result of the union. It consists of two side-by-side displays, either on two displays or a combined display on the same screen; the operator can see a conventional radar screen alongside another screen that shows an image from a thermal camera mounted on the ship. The concurrent viewing of these two can be invaluable- as every navigator knows- in poor visibility; the fact that radar targets can be matched to thermal images of the object in question in real time is what is exciting. The fact that the operator can - through the radar controls- zoom, pan and tilt the camera to follow a selected target automatically is a bonus, as is the system's ability to lock onto the range and bearing marker, zero in on a stationary target- or be manually controlled by the operator. Priceless in poor visibility- or in polar regions, a market that FLIR seems to be targeting first.

Thermal images, or thermograms, are actually visual displays of the amount of infrared energy emitted or reflected by an object. These cameras convert the infrared energy received- which all objects emit under any conditions found at sea- into a visible image. Standalone thermal cameras have been in use for a long time- in night vision goggles and in military operations, for medical purposes and medical imagery, for non destructive testing, fault finding in machinery, installations and construction and, more recently, used extensively by fire-fighters and rescue personnel who even use helmet mounted thermal cameras to locate survivors in smoke or debris.

For marine use, however, FLIR says it will manufacture long-range, gyro-stabilized, thermal imagers that provide high-resolution infrared images in daylight as well as in total darkness. FLIR is already in the market with standalone systems meant for recreational boaters, which allow easier navigation in busy waters under or at night. However, this is the first (that I know of) time that a commercial application has been developed that is integrated with the radar and- equally importantly- meant for shipping on the high seas. And, although the costs of the equipment are bound to be high, at least initially (a high quality thermal camera costs around 6000 dollars; a high quality camera meant for marine use is likely to be more expensive), what is exciting is that a third dimension to the basic 'lookout' navigation function- in addition to visual and radar 'lookout'- is on the horizon. In future, 'all available means' in the Colregs' 'Lookout' rule may well imply the inclusion of thermal imagery and its integrated systems.

Besides poor visibility situations, the new system will have many other uses. Navigation will be easier near unlit objects (including pirate boats) and in darkness, or while approaching port or berthing at night. In certain waters- polar for one, but also in much of the English Channel and North Sea in winter- plagued by persistent fog or ice, this equipment can greatly enhance operational safety and address at least some issues of fatigue and stress on the bridge; anything that lets a navigator 'see' when in dense fog will do that. 

Stirring, these possibilities, but I have some apprehensions too. The primary fear is the near-certainty that too many navigators will not take into account the limitations of this equipment, or correctly interpret its output. Look at it this way- some watchkeepers seem incapable of correctly interpreting radar output or understanding that equipment's limitations, leave alone that of the ARPA; will anything be different this time around? A connected apprehension is that I see looming, on a far horizon, a 'Familiarisation with Thermal Imagery' STCW course.

There is also a possibility that this additional equipment- when it finally becomes commonplace, as I expect it will- will be an additional distraction, especially in conditions when just looking out of the porthole can yield faster and more accurate results. Parallels again with radar usage when in excellent visibility and good weather in daytime here, when a glance out the bridge porthole is often preferable to peering at the radar screen.
Consider this scenario when a ship is making port in daytime in good visibility. The Master, who normally has two eyes, now has a new toy that- when not really required- distracts him. He is keeping an eye each on the radar, steering, engines, the Third Mate, the crew rigging the pilot ladder and everything else, including the woman on the passing beach in a bikini. He is watching too many things, is probably overwhelmed with data and has likely degraded situational awareness; will he switch off thermal imagery for safety?

But as Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia found out recently, if you concentrate on your friends on the beach you may be up the creek anyway, and nothing- not even subsequent non-thermal imagery about uncharted rocks - is going to save you or your ship. 

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