Today’s night vision options will make your adventures in the dark safer than ever before — and at a lot less cost than you may imagine.
Any time you’re running a boat at night there’s an elevated element of danger. And while uber-expensive thermal cameras were once strictly the purview of the blank-check battlewagon crowd, these days there are a lot more night vision options that are surprisingly low in cost. In fact, just about anyone who can swing a boat payment and a set of Internationals can afford to start peering through the darkness as though it were daylight.
FLIR has been the gold standard in thermal imaging for some time, and spectacular resolution is one of the reasons why it still is. Courtesy FLIR.
Types of Night Vision
For many years, infra-red thermal imaging was the no-brainer option. However, the tech used by light-gathering units (which amplify what little light is available as opposed to detecting heat signatures) has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent times. Critically, those ghost-like green images are a thing of the past — modern “ultra low-light” digital cameras provide color images, which can enhance some detail levels even beyond that of infra-red. And today, they’re available not only in handheld scope-type cameras but also fixed-mount units that can pipe the view directly to your MFD.
The Sionyx delivers color vision in the dark.
So, just how affordable are these things? The handheld Sionyx Aurora Black, (an upgrade from the recently phased-out Aurora Sport, one of the most popular base model handheld scopes), MSRPs for $699. It’s waterproofed to IP67 standards, impact resistant, WiFi enabled to broadcast imagery to phones or tablets, has 32GB storage, digital 3X magnification, and is potent enough to make out a human-sized target at 150 meters in near-moonless starlight conditions. And their fixed-mount Nightwave camera starts at just under $1,600.
Despite the appeal and affordability of new light-gathering units like this, thermal night vision does still hold some serious cards. It doesn’t need so much as a single star in the sky to work, and small targets with strong thermal images — such as a person in the water with only their head exposed — jump out on-screen and are incredibly easy to spot. And, as often happens with tech, prices for thermal in general have been dropping. Although it isn’t available just yet, this winter Iris announced a fixed-mount controllable camera line called the ATOM, which is expected to list for under $3,000 in the spring of 2023. FLIR has also pulled down the pricing barrier for their fixed-mount cameras, now just below the $3,500 mark for the M232 pan-and-tilt camera. Their handheld scope line, meanwhile, starts at $599 for the Ocean Scout TK, which claims the ability to spot relatively large objects like boats and buoys at up to 130 yards.
Some of the newer FLIR cameras combine their top-end thermal imaging with color night vision.
On top of that, to bring color into the mix FLIR now has a couple of cameras that integrate low light imagery with thermal imaging to produce an all-in-one view. These cutting-edge cameras also boast features like gyroscopic stabilization and 30X zoom. But as one might guess, they cost a slight teensy-weensy bit more: a M364C MSRPs at over $22,000.
Which Night Vision Camera is Best for You?
Judging purely by cost, one might quickly reach for a handheld scope. And if finances are an issue that may be the right move. But be forewarned, scopes and fixed-mounts sending their picture to an MFD provide very different levels of utility when you’re out on the water at night. The critical difference is that the captain can’t effectively use a scope while piloting the boat. And yes, we say this after having tried on numerous occasions. It’s just about impossible to close one eye and peep through the other, glance at the chartplotter and/or radar, peer through the darkness to watch the waves, and glimpse at the gauges, all at once. Additionally, windscreens and canvass can confuse the scopes, and the operator may have to stand above them or lean out to the side of a wheelhouse to get clear imagery. So, in order to take advantage of a scope you’ll really need one crewmember dedicated to operating it full time, calling out his or her observations to the captain.
Having imagery displayed on an MFD works better for piloting, although it still isn’t a panacea. Much depends on just how much LCD territory you have, and whether or not you can display a decent-size image while also displaying other critical nighttime nav needs like radar and the chart-plotter. Regardless, there will still be a price to pay in the form of night vision lost by looking at an LCD. This may be lessened with night-modes but can’t be eliminated completely, and often it’s best to dedicate a crew-member to watching the screen intently so you can just glance down now and again unless he or she calls out a target needing your attention.
The bottom line: any of these options will improve your safety margin when you’re out on a boat at night, and getting night vision is a lot less expensive than it was just a few years ago. Are there any reasons left not to arm yourself with night vision? If you can afford a boat payment and a set of Internationals, the answer is almost certainly not.