Friday, July 6, 2012

Technology may be contributing to a reduction in piracy

Measures at sea
Conventional wisdom is that once pirates are on board, it's too late. They can force mariners to operate their own vessels as "motherships" that serve as floating bases and rendezvous points for attacks on other commercial vessels, or use hostages as human shields against a military rescue. Anti-piracy measures that work at a distance are the first line of defense.

Acoustical hailing and warning devices have been around for years and use directed-sound technology to broadcast penetrating tones, powerful voice transmissions or other sounds more than half a mile. Rather than standalone defense, these tools may buy time for the crew to assess the threat, identify and deter attackers and call for help.
Market leader LRAD Corp. manufactures units in varying sizes and cost configurations. The units can be connected to MP3 players or other devices to broadcast recorded sounds, including messages in the attackers' language.

Scott Stuckey, vice president for business development at LRAD, said the tools work by letting the pirates know they've lost the element of surprise. Because the U.S. Navy has been using LRAD units for communication and deterrence, and then escalating to weapons, pirates are starting to expect LRAD transmissions to be followed by gunfire. Stuckey said the conditioning effect benefits all vessels, even those without guns.

Newer models can be controlled remotely from control units mounted on the bridge or in safe rooms, and aimed with the ship’s radar or thermal imaging systems. Some also include laser "dazzlers" and spotlights to temporarily blind attackers.

The role of the bleeding-edge technology Active Denial System (ADS), developed in secret by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense, has yet to be determined in the anti-piracy theater. The ADS emits a focused beam of wave energy that travels at the speed of light, penetrating the skin and causing an intolerable heating sensation and earning it the nickname"The Pain Ray." Some commercial models are effective from more than 270 yards, but military models work at more than twice that distance. The beams can penetrate clothing, but not stone or metal.

The Swedish company Unifire AB offers a water cannon system that can repel pirates that get close to vessels. A complete installation of the Force 10 system includes eight cannons placed at strategic locations, each of which can spray up to 1,300 gallons of water per minute at a pressure of 145 psi. The cannons can be operated remotely from the bridge or a citadel safe room, providing an extra measure of safety.

Water bursts can be distributed in varying patterns, or in "semiautomatic" mode, at enough force to cause physical damage. The cannons can also be used as onboard firefighting tools.

Hardening techniques prepare vessels to repel intruders through the installation of razor wire, searchlights, alarms and closed-circuit television cameras to monitor unauthorized boarding attempts. Cyrus Mody, an International Maritime Bureau manager, said fleets should prepare their vessels to use such methods in conjunction with armed guards and best-management practices to avoid hijack.

One of the new breeds of hardening technologies is produced by Netherlands-based Westmark BV. Unveiled in November 2011, P-Trap has already been shortlisted for, or won, several maritime industry security awards.

The passive, non-lethal system repels boarding attempts with a series of thin lines which float around the sides and stern of a ship's waterline. When approaching vessels run into the lines, their engines are entangled and disabled. Once deployed, no crew involvement is required, and the reusable system can defend against multiple vessels at once.

"The P-Trap concept is as simple as locking your doors and windows before going to bed at night," said Lodewijk Westerbeek van Eerten, who designed it. The system was tested in the field by the Dutch coast guard and Dockwise, a cargo transport company. Dockwise liked it enough to subsequently equip its entire fleet.

"We welcome the opportunity to provide additional tools and resources to our crews to reduce the risk of piracy attacks at sea," said Marco Schut, vice president of operations.

Another Dutch manufacturer, Secure-Marine BV, created the Secure-Ship collapsible electric fence. When the fence is set up around a vessel's perimeter, pirates attempting to board will trigger an alarm and floodlights, and receive a non-lethal 8-joule shock — not enough to kill them, but enough to hurt them.

Other products include an anti-traction gel developed for military use by San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute and repurposed for maritime use that can be sprayed onto vertical surfaces as a last-ditch defense against boarding.

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