Though not a new technology, thermal imaging has recently become more affordable for a non-military market, including the commercial maritime industry. Thermal cameras in various configurations and price ranges are being used for navigation, search and rescue operations, and security on vessels of all sizes, and as costs drop, new applications are being deployed.
Danish shipping company Maersk Line began using the technology as part of an anti-piracy solution following a high-profile attack last year on its containership Maersk Alabama. When the attack ended with the death of three Somali pirates and capture of the fourth, Maersk anticipated revenge-based follow-up attacks and commissioned a system that integrates a thermal imaging camera unit manufactured by Oregon-based FLIR Systems with Furuno NavNet radar and tracking.
FLIR’s Andrew Cox said the setup gives Alabama’s crew and owners multiple options, with two controls for each camera — one on the bridge and one in the safe room. If the crew retreats during a threat, the cameras can be operated from there.
“It’s also got an IP address,” he said. “If you provide Internet to the ship, anyone in the world with your password can not only see your images, but can control the cameras.”
The ability to cede camera control to a vessel’s headquarters during a crisis, or to the authorities, can provide the crew with an edge when it comes to protecting the ship and the cargo — not to mention their own lives.
Matt Wood, sales manager for Furuno USA, said both companies sent engineers to Oman during Alabama’s layover following the pirate attack to integrate the systems. “We provided our standard, off-the-shelf stuff,” he said, “including new radar antennas at the bow and stern.” The dual antennas provide redundancy — pirates can shoot one out without affecting the other.
The crew can use Furuno’s NavNet three-dimensional advanced radar plotting aid to track moving objects with the camera unit. “If you’re using the camera to see four miles out, that’s a lot of real estate to cover on the sea,” Cox said. “But with this system, you can see a blip on the radar, zoom in with the camera, and see whether it’s another boat, a fisherman or just a Coast Guard navigation can.” FLIR’s cameras provide similar capabilities with most radar systems using a standard NMEA interface.
Unlike traditional night vision cameras or glasses, which intensify existing light, thermal imaging cameras rely on heat signatures — this means they can see in total darkness, fog or smoke. Even minor temperature differences are visible.
“It’s not just differences in heat,” Cox said. “It’s a difference in thermal characteristics — even two things with the exact same temperature have different thermal characteristics. They reflect and absorb temperature differently. Every object does that differently. Looking for a person overboard with a spotlight or night vision is a needle in a haystack, but (with thermal imaging), a warm body in cold water really stands out.”
The technology lets you “see” into passing vessels. “You can look down on a boat and see if there are guns lying on the floor,” Cox said, “or if there are more guys hiding inside.”
Alabama uses FLIR’s stabilized Voyager model, which includes a wide-field-of-view thermal lens for situational awareness, obstacle avoidance and navigation, a narrow-field-of-view lens that can detect hazards and other vessels at long ranges, and a daylight and lowlight camera. It retails for about $80,000.
In April 2009, four Somali pirates seized the 509-foot Alabama in the Indian Ocean on its way to Kenya. The crew captured one of the pirates, and the others fled in a life raft with Alabama’s captain taken as hostage. An eventual standoff with the U.S. Navy ended with Navy SEAL snipers killing the three pirates in the lifeboat and rescuing the captain. During the standoff, thermal cameras were in use on the Navy ship, the remote drones monitoring the pirates from overhead, and the Navy snipers’ rifles, Cox said — an inadvertent demonstration of the technology’s usefulness in varied applications.
Several manufacturers, like Florida’s OceanView and U.K-based Vector Developments Ltd., offer competing camera units in varying size and price configurations aimed at marine applications, and the technology is being used more and more in aviation, automobiles, recreation, and other industries. Fixed thermal imaging units for marine use start at about $5,000, and cameras with pan and tilt functionality start around $9,000.
FLIR’s smallest model, the portable H-Series, is built in a shock-resistant, submersible housing, and can be used mounted or handheld. The battery-powered unit is ideal for small vessels or for man-overboard situations on larger boats, and lists for $3,000.
Furuno’s Wood said his company has worked with FLIR in the past on similar ship- and shore-based systems for port security. “The genesis for those was the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen,” he said. “By installing multiple radars around a target area, we can get a greater picture of an area than one radar could on its own.”
Maersk declined to discuss security measures on Alabama, but Cox said it’s currently the only Maersk vessel using the integrated system, which is being used in conjunction with other countermeasures.
“They have a security team on board that sits on the bridge and mans the Voyager system,” he said.
Seven months after the first attack, four pirates fired on Alabama from a skiff. This time the containership was prepared — the security team responded to the attack, first with acoustical weapons and then with gunfire, turning the pirates away. While it’s hard to say exactly how much of a role the integrated radar and thermal imaging system played in detecting and repelling the attack, what is clear is that the outcome was much more favorable than the initial incident.
“When (the ship) was attacked again, the system gave the crew the advance notice they needed,” Wood said. “It works.”