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High-Tech Vision

The latest advancements in low-light cameras make it safer to navigate when visibility wanes
FLIR utilizes ClearCruise software to overlay AIS targets and color thermal vision technology to show colors.

FLIR utilizes ClearCruise software to overlay AIS targets and color thermal vision technology to show colors.

Human eyes are miraculous. They can detect up to 10 million colors with 107 million light-sensitive cells that allow us to see a candle flame from 1.7 miles away. But human vision is restricted to the electromagnetic spectrum of wavelengths between 380 and 700 nanometers. And then we have near-infrared, infrared and thermal infrared wavelengths that extend to 13,000 nanometers.

In other words, there’s a lot out there that we can’t see. Fortunately, high-tech cameras can extend our visual range, and there’s a model for every boater’s budget.

Analog Systems

The first night-vision scopes were developed during World War II and relied on amplified light to let snipers see their targets. These devices start with an objective lens, which gathers all available light from heavenly bodies such as the moon, stars and other ambient sources. The image is then sent to an electronically powered image photocathode intensifier tube, which absorbs photons (light energy) and releases electrons (electric energy), transforming the resulting light into a sight picture that’s usually green and black, and that is displayed on a phosphorus screen.

Newer models such as the Bushnell Equinox X650 night vision monocular ($170) use an infrared illuminator, which emits a near-infrared beam that is invisible to the naked eye but serves to illuminate the viewing area electronically, allowing users to see in total darkness.

SiOnyx’s $999 Aurora Pro can stream live images to the helm. 

SiOnyx’s $999 Aurora Pro can stream live images to the helm. 

Next Steps

In 1996, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, along with several graduate students, discovered a material covered in microscopic spikes called black silicon. They found that it had unique properties such as an ability to absorb wavelengths between 400 and 2,500 nanometers, which was far beyond the infrared response of regular silicon.

Ten years later, Mazur and his then-graduate student, James Carey, founded SiOnyx (silicon plus black) and received funding from the U.S. Army and In-Q-Tel, the venture capital investment wing of the CIA. The goal at SiOnyx was to develop a new generation of low-light, color video cameras.

In 2016, a Kickstarter campaign launched to develop a camera for use by the general public. Two years later, the SiOnyx Aurora digital video and still camera hit the market for $799. It had a 1-inch CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensor, which transforms the light entering the objective lens into a digital signal. The digital image is then enhanced several times before becoming viewable on the device’s display. Its sensors have extremely effective low-light performance.

The company’s newest and most advanced model is the Aurora Pro ($999). It uses an XQE-1310 CMOS sensor to produce an impressive 1.3 megapixels to collect incoming light. Users can now extend their visual range from a maximum of 700 nanometers through the near-infrared spectrum (700 to 1,000 nanometers) and nudge into the infrared threshold to 1,100 nanometers.

Harvesting small amounts of ambient light, the Aurora Pro delivers a crisp color video image that records in 780p without the slightly purple tinge sometimes seen with less-expensive models. It also shoots still images and has GPS to record the location of the shoot.

All SiOnyx models have a waterproof rating of IP67, which means they can be submerged in water up to about 3 feet for 30 minutes. Users aren’t restricted to peering through a viewfinder; they can stream a live image via the SiOnyx app to compatible monitors at the helm, or an iPad or smartphone.

In August 2021, SiOnyx was sold to DC Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm that invests heavily in high-tech solutions that support military missions.

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Made for Yachts and Boats

For years, the gold standard for yacht-worthy, nighttime camera solutions has been the FLIR series of infrared thermal imaging products. Previously, high price points kept them out of the average boater’s reach, until the introduction of such models as the M232 ($3,649).

Technically, thermal cameras are sensors that detect infinitesimal differences in the heat signature of everything in a vessel’s path. They then assign each gradation a different shade on a grayscale. This technology can be used during hazardous daytime situations, such as when the sun is directly in a skipper’s eyes. This scenario would destroy some starlight cameras or blow out everything on the screen. It’s also useful during light fog and rain.

For those needing the benefit of visual and thermal cameras, there’s the FLIR M364C ($21,495) or M364C LR ($29,495). Boaters can use the thermal and visual features separately, or combine them to utilize color thermal vision technology, which allows thermal images to show colors. This technology helps the user more readily identify items in a vessel’s path; items such as a green buoy will be shown in color. Features such as gyrostabilization and zoom capabilities up to 30x mean the visual payload will effectively replace binoculars at the helm. Employing video-over-IP and Ethernet connectivity, the 300 Series can interface with Furuno, Raymarine, Simrad and Garmin multifunction displays. It also has ONVIF compatibility, which is the security camera industry standard.

Another feature that can be employed concurrently is ClearCruise AR, an aug­mented reality technology that overlays AIS targets, chart objects and waypoints in real time when combined with Raymarine Axiom. This technology, too, is available in lower-cost models such as the M232. The M364C also uses FLIR MSX imaging tech, which extracts edges and borders from the high-definition visible camera and blends them with the thermal image for better recognition of distant objects. 

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A View From Above

First seen in the United States at last fall’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Garmin’s Surround View camera system lets the skipper see all around the boat, and can create a bird’s-eye view to make challenging docking situations easier. Using six 1080p through-hull cameras — one fore, one aft and two on each side — the system stitches together outputs into a wraparound view that’s displayed on compatible Garmin multifunction displays or Volvo Penta’s Glass Cockpit system. The cameras have a low profile and are styled with chrome bezels. They have the ability to zoom in or pan out. A Visual Bumper feature has distance markers to give the skipper a visual representation of how far obstacles are from the boat.

This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.

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