SCF Marine equips towboat fleet with thermal cameras

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.”