Technology vs. Pirates

Unmanned aircraft may be the best bet to fight Somalian piracy

3 min read

Over the past few months, the popular image of pirates has morphed from drunken swashbuckler to Somali bandit, as raiders in the Gulf of Aden, off the Indian Ocean, have brazenly taken on larger targets—like the oil tanker Sirius Star—and more of them. During the first nine months of 2008, there were more than 120 pirate attacks off East Africa, compared with 60 in 2007 and 13 in 2004, according to the International Maritime Organization. Military missions haven’t succeeded at stemming piracy so far, but could there be a technological fix?

Combating pirates has proved tricky for several reasons. The sheer length of the Somali coastline—just over 3000 kilometers—makes it hard to cover. Pirates typically operate from mother ships resembling legitimate fishing vessels, from which the bandits send out speedboats. This allows the pirates to cover a huge area and to capture ships far from the coast. Also, the merchant vessels they target often have small crews and don’t see the pirates coming until it’s too late.

Because the 4 million square kilometers of ocean off Somalia make up an area far too large for a navy to guard by ship, Rand Corp. senior analyst Peter Chalk argues that ship crews should take steps to protect themselves. First, ships should increase the size of their crew, which would help spot pirates early enough to evade them or to call for help. But there are also nonlethal technologies that can make boarding a ship more difficult, such as putting an electric fence around its perimeter or equipping the ship with high-pressure fire hoses.

Cruise ships have succeeded in keeping pirates at bay by using long-range acoustic crowd-control devices, such as those made by HPV Technologies, based in Costa Mesa, Calif. When a vessel’s crew spots an unidentified ship, the device’s operator tries to fend off the ship with an amplified verbal warning. If the warning goes unheeded, the crew can blast the ship with an excruciatingly painful noise. Such devices, depending on their size (and cost), have a range of 0.4 to 16 km, says Vahan Simidian II, chief executive officer of HPV.

Martin Murphy, a piracy expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in Washington, D.C., says his pick for a technology solution is surveillance by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): ”They’re small and difficult to detect. They can stay up for many hours, and their loops can cover very large areas.” UAVs could get a picture of activity in the area and pick out patterns, potentially making a naval mission more effective, Murphy says.

But not just any UAV will do. The aircraft that would probably work best to survey the Gulf of Aden would need to communicate by satellite instead of via a local base station as many craft do, says William Semke, a UAV researcher and associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota. He thinks that the ScanEagle, made by Insitu, in Bingen, Wash., is close to what’s needed, because it has demonstrated more than 20 hours and 2000 km in flight without refueling. Semke estimates that the aircraft’s camera could spot a human on a boat at about 32 km, so one vehicle could potentially survey about 64 000 km2 in a day.

At about US $120 000 per plane, ”it’s not a cheap and easy thing to do, but it could still be cost-effective compared to other solutions” like manned aircraft surveillance, says Semke. Despite the use of UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the technology is still relatively new, and many kinks would need to be worked out before the planes could start patrolling the oceans. The main problem, says Semke, is that UAVs cannot sense objects in their path and thus avoid collisions with things like commercial airplanes or a flock of birds. A potential solution is to add a forward-looking radar or infrared system, he says, but this technique has not been perfected.

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