DRS Thermal Camera Tested

Author: Ethan Ace, Published on Feb 25, 2013

Recently, DRS entered the IP thermal market with far lower pricing than any incumbent, aiming to make this technology affordable to users who could never previously consider it. However, with such low pricing, performance and usability concerns are obvious, wondering what is lost at such a far lower cost.

In this report, we share our test results of DRS' WatchMaster IP Elite thermal camera, testing it against Axis, FLIR, Pelco, and SightLogix at short and long range. We also give our recommendations for optimization, and provide an overview of the camera's configuration and physical construction.

Key Findings

The WatchMaster IP Elite performs relatively well, especially considering its price. Generally speaking, while images may produce slightly less detail, detection capability was fairly close in our tests.

Some factors to keep in mind:

  • Third-party integration, via ONVIF, supported VMS integration with Exacq, Avigilon, and Genetec without problems.
  • Sparser featureset than most competitors, with fewer options for image adjustment.
  • Fewer lens options than most competitors, with only 40°, 16°, and 9° options standard.
  • No options for on-board analytics, and no analog output for integration with analytic appliances such as VideoIQ, similar to FLIR. 
  • MSRP is $1,995, with estimated street price to be approximately the same. Most other IP thermal cameras are in the range of $4,000-6,000.

Recommendations

For most commercial security deployments, the WatchMaster IP Elite is worth considering. Under normal conditions, where high heat, humidity, or precipitation are not factors, the lack of image adjustment features will likely have little impact. 

However, in more adverse conditions, or in high security deployments where performance must be guaranteed, users should consider and contrast to other options. We recommend at least testing DRS in place, however, as its price point likely means 2 cameras may be afforded for the same budget as a single camera from other manufacturers.

Physical Overview

In this screencast, we briefly review the physical characteristics of the WatchMaster IP Elite. As can be seen, the WatchMaster does not offer the "bells and whistles" common to many cameras, such as I/O or audio. Also it is smaller and lighter weight than most thermal competitors, with only the main camera body made of cast aluminum, while other parts (sunshield, back cover, mount adapter) are ABS plastic. Many users may consider this as a weakness, especially in areas where the camera is subject to vandalism. Users should also note that the WatchMaster IP Elite is PoE powered, including the heater. Some other cameras, such as the Axis Q19 and FLIR FC may power the camera only via PoE, but not the heater.

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DRS also offers a very thorough installation overview via Youtube, which walks users through mount and cabling installation:

Configuration Overview 

In this brief screencast, we review the web interface and configuration of the WatchMaster IP Elite. Most notable are the contrast and brightness controls, DRS' only image adjustment features, which users should adjust to fit the scene.

DRS Optimization

As we demonstrated in our configuration video, DRS provides few adjustments to the camera's image in its web interface. Users are able to change contrast, brightness, and white balance modes (hold or automatic), along with whether white or black is shown as hot. We tested using defaults, and again after making adjustments to contrast and brightness, specifically moving contrast to the range of 38-42 (default is 50) and brightness to about 40. The difference between the two may be seen in this image:

DRS Image Adjustment Comparison

As shown in the comparison, these adjustments provide a moderate improvement to image quality. Because this allowed slightly more clarity and defined edges, our subject was a little bit easier to distinguish against the warmer area of the background. This adjustment becomes more necessary as ambient temperature approaches body temperature, as opposed to the winter's day this example was recorded. The bottom row of images show the detrimental effects possible if contrast or brightness are adjusted too high.

Range Comparison

At close range (~150'), the WatchMaster produces images roughly comparable to other 320x240/384x288 models from Axis, FLIR, Pelco, and SightLogix. Compared to others, DRS' contrast is modestly lower.

At ~1,800' range, the lower contrast of the WatchMaster makes it slightly more difficult to spot our subject than some competitors. However, detection is still possible.

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