Gear Review: FLIR First Mate MS Handheld Thermal Imager

I’ve been wondering about FLIR for a while and found this gear review to be a helpful read.

Nearly two months ago a product arrived on gCaptain’s doorstep that brought a smile to our faces: FLIR’s First Mate Handheld Thermal Imaging Camera. The unit itself is small, about the size of your average SART, and, at a street price of around $2500, relatively inexpensive — but those attributes are only the beginning.

Our unit arrived packaged neatly in a Pelican Case and was ready to use without much configuration or reading of manuals. Like Apple fans say, “It just worked.”

And the results were impressive. Once powered on, the unit quickly showed an image of my surroundings, which proved instantly valuable as I quickly found three air leaks in my house’s insulation and an overheating electrical power strip. Walking out my front door I spotted the neighborhood cat hiding in the bushes and could tell which cars on my block had been running in the last few hours.

But the real test came on the water. Arriving at my 40-foot sailboat, we immediately began giving the product a workout starting with the vessel’s electrical cables. A recent audit of the boat told us the wire running to the boat’s anchor windlass was too small and might create enough heat to start a fire…. so we dropped the anchor, put a few reverse revs on the engine, and watched through the camera’s viewfinder as the windlass’ electrical cable heated-up. Fortunately, the wire itself never got too hot, but its connection to the boat’s battery terminals did.

With the terminals cleaned, and a potential fire avoided, we turned the unit onto the engine and shaft watching the heat signature for potential problems….then we headed topside. On a moonless night in the quiet harbor of Morro Bay, it was difficult to make out the surrounding boats and impossible to see anyone walking along the nearby shore.  But with the FLIR unit in hand, the night sky was illuminated clear as day. The unit clearly works.

Thermal Imaging units have been around for a decade. Many ships carry an expensive unit to assist during search and rescue operations during fires and many more carry inexpensive units, like FLIR’s $1300 i3 Compact, in the engine room for maintenance tasks. Some even carry FLIR’s top-of-the-line mast-mounted units, like the M-Series, integrated into a vessel’s ECDIS system for SAR and navigation at night. While thermal imaging cameras can be re-purposed for use on the bridge, this goes against most expert’s advice… and for good reason.

The advantage of the FLIR First Mate over fixed mount units like the FLIR Voyager and those designated for other purposes, like the i3, is portability and ease of use.  Sure, the i3 is portable, but it’s not designed for long-range use and more importantly, it’s not going to be available for immediate use if you have to call the engine room and ask for it to be sent up to the bridge.  The unit’s best use is for times when you need to know what’s happening around you NOW.  From security threats (like scanning the horizon or, if in port, terminal docks for security threats) to search and rescue, you want a unit that’s immediately available and easy to use. You want a unit which you can hand off to your AB and, without much thought, let him or her effortlessly scan the horizon.

Read the full review at

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