ST. LOUIS, Mo. – As safety and compliance officer for St. Louis-based barge operator SCF Marine,
Tim Robinson knows there are “situations where you lose visibility … where
you’re trying to find a safe place to hold up,” because shutout fog or a deluge
of rain came on suddenly.
SCF is a SEACOR company that operates 31 towboats and about 1,200 barges on the inland waterways.
How do you ensure that an experienced towboat captain has a way to extend
the lookout and keep tabs on obstructions in the waterway and where the bank is
when trying to find a safe place to hold up?
This year, SCF decided to make a technology leap and invest
in FLIR infrared cameras for their fleet. “It gives our wheelhouse people one
more tool to use,” said Steven Colby, safety compliance officer at SCF Marine.
You can hear SCF talk about their reasoning and see examples of the video technology in the following video:
This kind of solution, said Jeremie Mize, president of
Mid-South Technologies, which installed the cameras, is becoming more
commonplace on the waterways, along with other kinds of CCTV technology, IP
phones, and general internet networking.
When first working with SCF, Mize showed them an M Series FLIR camera side by side with a standard Pelco PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) camera
fitted with infrared illuminators.
“Thermal and lowlight are two completely different
technologies,” he said, “and I wanted them to see both options.”
They let the towboat travel up and down the Mississippi for
about a month, then pulled the video from both kinds of cameras and he and SCF
president Tim Power sat down to have a look.
“I was able to show him side by side video and really focus
on going underneath bridges and passing other vessels,” Mize said, “to look at
how well you can see with this one versus that one … It really helps the
captain navigate [even with the infrared illuminators] they’re going to use
their spot beams, and if you have the slightest bit of fog, with a bright
light, it almost makes it worse.”
Further, the infrared illuminators will cause reflection on
the water that the thermal cameras won’t and the thermal cameras produce the
same images in both daylight and night time, so they can also help with seeing
through rain or even brush on the riverbank.
“We were able to talk to the captain of the
vessel,” Mize said, “who at the time of the system being installed thought it
was something of a waste of time, or was worried about the “big brother”
syndrome, but we tried to focus on the fact that this is a tool to help him and
everything really worked out, and they decided to put one of these M series
camera on the rest of the fleet.”
Andrew Cox, manager of the maritime business for FLIR, said
one thermal camera is pretty typical for a towboat installation. “For guys
going up and down the Mississippi, with one thousand feet of tow in front of
the tug,” he said, “with this camera, they can point it down at the tow itself
and see the guys running around on the barges. It’s huge for crew safety.”
“Just seeing out in front of the barge at night,” he
continued, “when they’re going through bridges where they may only have a
couple of feet of clearance on either side, thermal can be huge. Otherwise,
they have to stop the barge, inspect the whole abutment, and then proceed
through. With a thermal camera with a much wider field of view, you don’t need
to top the barge.”
He even noted that the bulbs for the high-intensity
spotlights some barge operators use can cost a pretty penny themselves. “You
can even save money on search lights,” he claimed, “in the very short term by
using a thermal camera.”
The thermal cameras from FLIR start in the $9,000 range,
which is roughly what SCF went with, and get more expensive as you get longer
range and more zoom ability.
And while SCF was out ahead of any potential safety issues,
Cox said the typical customer comes to FLIR one day too late: “It’s usually an
accident that prompts it,” he said. “Some tug company pulls into port and they’ve
run into something, and they call us.”