Cruising with a Third Eye

This is not metaphysical. But it is OK to cue the Sitar Music.

This is about using a USB or Bluetooth Webcam to see places you shouldn’t, can’t or won’t put your eyes. [And fiber optic technology can fill in places a webcam won’t fit.]

In 2005, I wanted to install a water filtration unit in our galley. The spigot was to be installed in a locker, above a shelf, behind the sink pan (nothing but net). I was highly desirous of not drilling a hole in anything I would regret. There were plenty of those in my (hidden) way. I would have needed a snail’s independent stalked eyes and octopus tentacles to do the job.

Instead, I kluge-clipped my medium resolution web cam to the local framing pretty much where I would have put my face could I have done so. Using a flexible shaft drill, and watching the laptop screen, I was able to drill up through the counter and do all the subsequent stuff required for a mistake free install.

A few months later the autopilot drive mechanism (apparently) was making a somewhat random but otherwise disturbing noise. We put the webcam back in its compartment so we could watch and listen. We discovered the emergency tiller wasn’t secured as well as it could have been and on surges it would tap the hull just about the time the AP drive would kick in. Problem solved with a tighter bungee. Also a good way to assess quadrant cable tension.

We have fuel and water tanks with glass observation ports. Rather than tie two of us up when filling the tanks, the webcam allows the tank filler to keep an eye on progress (and I can do so wherever there is 3G or better coverage for my smartphone if I chose.)

Since then (and with several more examples — such as spotting the source of an elusive sewage drip) We have identified an HD camera for less than $100. What makes this camera attractive is it has a standard tripod compatible fitting (Link is not a recommendation). One reason to go up to this is on-deck monitoring. We can port an HD webcam to our HDTV.

If you choose to take advantage of this technology:

  • Get a decent camera — boat spaces involve low light and cheap cameras suffer in low light.
  • Make sure it’s a “Webcam.” These have the lenses for the kind of close up work we’ve mentioned. Security Cams sometimes are not as useful close up.
  • Consider a camera with LED illumination to reduce the need to fiddle with a flashlight and its placement.
  • Consider a camera with infrared illumination for keeping an eye on deck without disturbing others nearby.*
  • Install software that will allow recording video, stills and screen captures. I have also installed motion sensitive screen cap software for catching a drip in the act of falling.
  • Consider wireless/Bluetooth as the sixteen foot limitation on USB is real, longer cables lose signal strength, and thus quality, in a hurry.

*Cameras that respond to IR frequencies** can also be used with “false color” software which will colorize the pictures according to the temperature sensed. These can be useful in detecting if one device among many is running hotter than desired. While not as good as real IR detection devices, these should meet about  99% of a boat’s needs (wants?)

** A standard webcam can be hacked to perform in the IR spectrum (and works surprisingly well), but that’s beyond our scope here.

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