I’ll bet my step-mama’s grave that anyone visiting SurvivalBlog either has a thermal headset or night vision device or would really like to have one. I was never able to emerge from the latter category until this year. I simply couldn’t afford to plunk down a thousand bucks or more on a limited family budget. That was the case, until now.
Smartphone-Mounted Thermal Camera
I recently discovered that a small, smartphone-mounted thermal camera can be had for about $200. Flir1 and Seek are the two competitors in this arena. Their cameras come in versions for both android and iOS devices. The only difference is the connector that plugs into the camera. Initially, I wasn’t too excited about relying on a thermal camera that had to be attached to my smartphone. Aside from being a novel toy, I figured the backlight from the smartphone’s screen would simply be a homing device to my face for a looter’s bullet. However, while researching the two competitor cameras, I had an epiphany that I’ll explain in a bit.
Various vendors, such as amazon.com, jet.com, and Home Depot, sell the camera online. Its average price is around $200-$225, though there are some options that may add to this basic price on the Seek camera.
Pros and Cons of Flir1 and Seek
After researching both cameras, I found that each had their own pros and cons. For example, the Flir1 was significantly bigger, but it had its own internal, rechargeable battery. The Seek was much smaller, but it leeched its power from the smartphone. In low light, the Flir appeared to have much better image clarity due to its two lenses, whereas the Seek only has one lens. The Flir is silent, whereas the Seek has a shutter that quietly clicks at a steady rate. The Seek camera has a basic shorter-ranged model, an XR model (extended range), and now a Pro model. The Pro model is in the $500 price range.
After doing hours of online research and comparing image quality on Youtube videos, I opted for the Seek XR because of its better resolution over the Flir1 in complete darkness. However, if you’re operating in an area with at least some light, the Flir1 might be a better option because it has better clarity in this environment.
Experience with Seek XR
When the Seek XR finally arrived, I immediately removed it from its plastic waterproof case. The entire case and camera can fit in the palm of one’s hand. The Seek itself is not waterproof, and the case is merely for storage. I noticed that the camera’s lightning connector wasn’t reinforced in any way, so this definitely wasn’t going to meet any mil-spec standards. When connecting the Seek to the iphone, I had to remove my iphone’s case so that the connector would snap into place. Even though my phone case is pretty thin, it prevented the camera’s lightning connector from snapping into place.
Fun Learning Experience
My boys and I had a lot of fun with it around the house, pointing it at family members, pets, and plumbing pipes. We also had a fun time playing hide and seek. Within 10 minutes I was able to dismiss a lot of the myths and preconceived ideas I had about thermal cameras. We tried some tricks to hide or minimize our heat signatures as we hid. We also learned what did and didn’t work. At this point, I already felt that this learning lesson was $200 well spent.
Sheriff’s Concern Over Screen Backlight
Despite the fun, I really bought this to use at work as a deputy sheriff. For some reason, bad guys like to occasionally hide from us in areas with woods and dense vegetation. I really wanted to use the Seek for this purpose, but I was afraid about getting backlit by the screen. Again, getting a bullet to the face would be a bit of a downer.
To fix this problem, I initially considered using a small camo blanket that I could wear over my head while the camera lens poked through a small hole in the blanket. Although this would work, I thought it’d be a hassle to set up while under stress. It’d also have to hold the camera so I’d lose the use of at least one hand. This definitely wouldn’t work for my purpose.
After a bit more thought I realized that we had an inexpensive Virtual Reality (VR) headset laying around the house. I had bought it for my boys off Amazon for $15. This device was built to allow smartphones to slip inside. The viewer can watch select Youtube videos in VR mode. This VR headset was pretty inexpensive and blurry, so it more or less gave us a headache. It was one of those two-time use things that gets banished to a heap in the closet.
I decided to forge ahead with my plan: slip the iPhone into the VR headset with the thermal camera poking out the side. This would allow a clear and unobstructed, handsfree view. My VR’s plastic insert, which held the phone, blocked the iPhone’s port where I needed to affix the camera. A simple cut with my hacksaw did the trick. A Dremel or other cutting or grinding tool would also work. Despite this, the camera’s lightning connector was still too short to reach the iPhone. I found that Amazon sold a small lightning connector extender for under $15. The first one that I purchased broke after a week of use. I then purchased two Niubee connectors for $9.99, and it appears these are a bit more durable.
The camera’s lenses blurred my phone’s screen beyond use. After a bit of prying and bending with a flathead screwdriver and pliers, I was able to pop out the lenses without damaging the headset. I used a small handsaw to cut away a few spots that housed the lenses. This gave me a slightly bigger view of my screen. I also taped and glued any areas with light leakage. Again, I didn’t want to mark my location for a bad guy.
Paint Headset Black
I painted the white VR headset black. This will make your device much more tactical in the dark, and it’ll bring it up to a mil-spec standard (sarcasm). I’ll still plan to make an external housing area on the VR headset, around the camera, to help protect and contain it. This will offer the camera more protection from bumps, breakage, and falling off.
The Seek App
The Seek requires you to download their free app. The app works great, although I find that sometimes the screen’s view will be upside down. This didn’t happen often, maybe 1/4 of the time. After a reset or two, the thermal cam is ready for use. You can select the palette color of your choice. Once this is set, there’s no need to do this each time. Total set up time under stress is about 30 seconds. If the app makes your view upside down, that may add another 15-30 seconds. The app also lets you take photos or video while using the camera. This is a great feature that’s not found on most thermal scopes.
Close Screen Proximity
I will warn you that the close proximity of the smartphone screen to your eyes may not work for some people. The VR headset holds the screen about 4-5 inches from your eyes. This might not work for some people. You can wear glasses with the VR headset, but it’ll allow some light leakage near your temples.
After putting the thermal headset together I began some testing. The headset did not allow me to accurately use my gun sites. I found that the gun sights and the firearm were all the same temperature. This made the sights indistinguishable from the rest of the weapon and therefore unusable. It is possible to at least point your weapon in the general vicinity of a bad guy, so the Thermal VR Headset (TVR) may be best suited for use with a shotgun.
The particular VR headset that I had purchased (Hoo Too model HT-VR001) has a little slider that opens to the front so you can see the outside world with your left eye. Although screen light can escape, the light signature is fairly minimal. You can at least temporarily orient yourself to the outside world with a quick peak through the slider vs. having to remove the entire TVR. It’s also possible to acquire your sites through the opened slider with a bit of practice. If you must move on foot I’d recommend doing so with the slide open. Then you can close it as you settle into a hidden position.
The TVR is unable to distinguish separate objects that are the same temperature. For example, if a wooden crate is on a hardwood floor, they’ll likely appear to all be the same color. Therefore, when I walk down a hallway I might not “see” the wooden crate. Areas with dense vegetation also act similarly. A strand of blackberry branches spanning across a footpath may blend in with the trees in the background. Obviously, this creates a huge tripping hazard.
Best For Stationary or Defensive Use
This limits the TVR to being better suited for stationary or defensive use. It works great for scanning areas and identifying threats while the wearer remains in a concealed position. Ironically, despite the cool-factor of thermal imaging, a well aimed flashlight can easily defeat the thermal camera. The thermal cam won’t actually see the light, but it will see the heat from the source of the light. Many times, the heat signature is seen as nothing more than a little dot on the screen. This dot may look like the heat dot from an electrical outlet or other small heat source.
Imagine a paintball game between two people in a giant warehouse with various obstacles. Opponent A is armed with the TVR while opponent B is armed with a cheap $10 flashlight. Opponent A has the advantage until the moment he gets lit up with a flashlight. This could happen entirely at random. It doesn’t matter, though, because at that very moment the $10 flashlight just defeated the thermal camera. In the real SHTF world, a bullet would likely follow.
Advantage of a Thermal Camera
So what is the advantage of a thermal camera or the TVR headset? It can be a huge advantage when used the right way. Ideally, it’s best if the TVR wearer has a partner or battle buddy. The partner just watches with his own eyes and is ready to engage any targets. The TVR wearer acts as a spotter. Having a partner also allows for offensive maneuvering, although it’s imperative to remain connected via touch. This, of course, requires practice and trust.
Ideally, when I operate alone, I find it best to hunker down in a good hiding spot with a clear view. I’ve never had to engage a target; however, at this point it would be most prudent to remove the TVR headset and engage with a weapon and flashlight. Therein lies the primarily benefit of the TVR; it allows the wearer to find the target before the target finds you. It gives you that advantage, but the decision to act and engage must quickly follow. Otherwise, the advantage is lost. The transition from TVR to the weapon and flashlight must be seamless. Practice.
TVR at Work
Lately, I’ve been eagerly toting my TVR in my work bag. Since the thermal cam is reliant on a smartphone, the next time I upgrade my smartphone, I’ll keep the old one and dedicate it to the TVR. My thermal cam’s primary purpose of locating bad guys, however, was completely upended recently.
This past week my patrol area became the scene of a massive wildfire. Throughout the day I watched the fire that more or less remained stationary, just outside of our county. I could see smoke billowing through the trees from about 100 yards away, although the flames weren’t visible. However, when I used the TVR, I could easily see where the hotspots were located. I was able to see the movement of these hotspots, which helped in determining its movement and progression. The Seek XR detected heat signatures on an airplane and helicopter doing water drops from a distance of about 300 yards.
As I drove along the main road to return to the office after my work day, I was shocked to see that the fire had jumped nearly two miles in an instant. Every available deputy and county volunteer was mustered to do door-to-door evacuations. This, in and of itself, could be another story. While going door to door, I found myself checking properties that were located against the bottom of a steep hillside. Many times, I could see billowing smoke through the tree tops, but I couldn’t see the actual flames. I used the Seek XR and immediately “saw” two hotspots through the trees at ground level. As several wildland firefighters walked up a dirt driveway to my location, I was able to point to the exact location of the fire that was otherwise not visible to the human eye.
This TVR became extremely useful as the day turned to night and as the smoke grew extremely dense. Many homes in these rural areas are situated down long narrow driveways that twist and turn. It can be a challenge on these driveways to drive in reverse quickly and in the dark. I didn’t want to get caught off-guard with an unseen fire lurking behind the smoke and around the next sharp curve. The camera brought a sense of peace when I scanned the area before proceeding into these areas. I’d also do a quick “thermal” scan as I exited my patrol car to knock on doors. Many of the residents would ask, “Where’s the fire?” This little thermal camera helped me confidentially give them an answer.
I took numerous photos and videos of the fire with the thermal camera app and overall I’m very pleased with this little device. Like a tool on a tool belt, the Seek XR and its companion, the TVR, can work amazingly well together when used for the right purpose.
Here is a YouTube video link of wildfire footage with the SeekXR and headset.
SurvivalBlog Writing Contest
This has been another entry for Round 73 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:
- A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
- A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate. This can be used for any one, two, or three day course (a $1,090 value),
- A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses, excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
- DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper. These have hammer forged, chrome-lined barrels and a hard case, to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel. This can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools. It also provides a compact carry capability in a hard case or in 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
- Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
- A $250 gift certificate good for any product from Sunflower Ammo,
- American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses, and
- Two cases of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), courtesy of CampingSurvival.com (a $180 value).
- A Model 175 Series Solar Generator provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
- A Glock form factor SIRT laser training pistol and a SIRT AR-15/M4 Laser Training Bolt, courtesy of Next Level Training, which have a combined retail value of $589,
- A gift certificate for any two or three-day class from Max Velocity Tactical (a $600 value),
- A transferable certificate for a two-day Ultimate Bug Out Course from Florida Firearms Training (a $400 value),
- A Trekker IV™ Four-Person Emergency Kit from Emergency Essentials (a $250 value),
- A $200 gift certificate good towards any books published by PrepperPress.com,
- A pre-selected assortment of military surplus gear from CJL Enterprize (a $300 value),
- RepackBox is providing a $300 gift certificate to their site.
- A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
- A large handmade clothes drying rack, a washboard, and a Homesteading for Beginners DVD, all courtesy of The Homestead Store, with a combined value of $206,
- Expanded sets of both washable feminine pads and liners, donated by Naturally Cozy (a $185 retail value),
- Two Super Survival Pack seed collections, a $150 value, courtesy of Seed for Security, LLC,
- Mayflower Trading is donating a $200 gift certificate for homesteading appliances,
- Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord (in-stock colors only) from www.TOUGHGRID.com (a $240 value), and
Round 73 ends on November 30th, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.