The Best Thermal Cameras for Boating

Serious marine enthusiasts put a lot of thought and energy into finding and purchasing the right gear for their boats. One piece of equipment that should not be overlooked is a high-quality thermal camera. The best thermal cameras use military grade infrared equipment, which has only very recently become available to the general public.

These cameras produce images using infrared radiation. These images are similar to those produced by fixed digital cameras, but they work a little bit differently. They detect differences in heat instead of light. Any amount of difference in the amount of heat being produced will register on the device, providing a much clearer image than the night vision scopes with which they are commonly confused. These produce only hazy green images, whereas thermal cameras are actually quite clear.

One common misconception is that thermal cameras only provide images of objects that are hot. However, everything in the visible spectrum also produces thermal energy. It is not visible to the naked eye, but even ice has a heat signature. High quality thermal cameras can detect differences in these heat signatures down to 0.01 degrees Celsius, displaying them as a shaded black and white image. Because they receive all of their information from heat rather than visible light, they do not work as well during the daytime. They do, however, still function during the day.

What makes this technology so essential on a boat? Since both people and animals have distinct heat signatures, it allows boaters to distinguish between things like crab pots and floating logs, even at night. It can be extremely helpful in emergency circumstances when people fall over the side of the boat, as a person’s head shows up with a distinctly different heat signature than the water around it.

For those who want to take advantage of this technology but do not have the funding for expensive equipment, there are now smartphone applications available that can provide thermal images. Although they are less effective than cameras specifically designed for the purposes of thermal imaging, they are a useful alternative to sometimes prohibitively expensive equipment. The best-developed phone applications blend visual and thermal images to provide more detail.