Technology may be contributing to a reduction in piracy

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The good news for the maritime industry is that more and more vendors have begun to bring technological solutions for combating piracy to market — the better news is that they may be paying off. Industry statistics show that pirates seized fewer vessels worldwide last year than in 2010 and held fewer hostages for ransom.

The increased presence of naval forces in such high-risk areas as the Horn of Africa is at least partially responsible. But the measures taken by maritime operators are the first line of defense against pirates, and sending the message that ships and their crews are no longer easy targets can deter pirates looking for a mark.

Some anti-piracy measures work from a distance to cut off attacks before pirates can board. Others are aimed at keeping them from taking control of the vessel or kidnapping crew if initial deterrence fails. And some are being used to teach crews how to respond to high-risk situations.

Most of the measures can be used together in conjunction with evasive maneuvers to safeguard ships in high-risk areas.

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.

Measures in the classroom
In addition to employing new technologies, fleet owners are recognizing the value of training crew for the possibility of an attack. Capt. Jerry Pannell, director of member training and officer development at the Dania Beach, Fla.-based STAR Center, said anti-piracy training typically covers more general vessel security awareness than specific techniques and procedures.

"The next level is people preparing to go on board where they'll face real-time situations and needs,” he said. In general, the training looks at duties and responsibilities within onboard procedures, including rigging deterrents and similar techniques to combat piracy.

Maritime IT developer Transas recently introduced an anti-piracy computer training system that presents classroom scenarios using two pirate motherships and four smaller fast boats of varying speeds. Each boat can be displayed in different visual states, ranging from harmless fishermen to aggressive pirates, to mimic an escalating threat level.

"The goal is to help trainees understand what effect their avoidance maneuvers would have, and to practice resolution of potential hostile targets, evasion techniques, communication, making contact and engaging," said Transas's Ralf Lehnert.

The training exercises teach students to detect hostile vessels using common vessel systems like ECDIS, radar and AIS, and through such visual cues as the number of fuel barrels on deck and visible weapons and crew. Trainees practice avoidance and evasion methods like course and speed changes in scenarios based on known behavioral patterns exhibited by pirate vessels. They're also taught to prepare for closing in on and engaging hostile vessels for anti-piracy forces, including the best angle of approach, and course and speed decisions.

The Transas simulator also lets users observe typical attack patterns from the perspective of the pirate vessel to better understand how avoidance maneuvers appear to the enemy, and can provide naval ships and helicopters as escort objects for convoy sailing and communication procedure training.

"Anti-piracy training is all about early reconnaissance and recognition, and then about initiating the countermeasures and best-management practice," said Lehnert. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is among the first customers.

Defenses and offenses
More vessels are carrying unarmed security teams, and some are hiring armed details for protection, but for the most part, military forces continue to provide the muscle for rescues. Minnesota-based ReconRobotics Inc. is developing a reconnaissance robot to aid in such operations.

The tiny, one-pound robot has magnetized wheels that enable it to climb up and over the hull of a ship. Equipped with infrared optics that provide clear night vision, it can be ejected up to 120 feet from a larger robot in a "marsupial" system. This approach provides a means for armed forces responding to piracy incidents to investigate a situation without risking human life.

Alan Bignall, the company's president and CEO, said the system might eventually include other payloads and sensors to increase its versatility and “expand its mission profile."

As piracy has moved into the global spotlight, the maritime industry has begun to adapt its best-management practices to include deterrence methods as well as appropriate actions for when deterrence fails, including preparing for hostage situations and establishing safe rooms on board vessels.

Bob Gauvin, the U.S. Coast Guard's executive director of piracy policy, said it's important for vessels to follow such practices as well as the protocols outlined in their security plans. The Coast Guard recommends preventive and defensive techniques over offensive measures, as well as citadel procedures, or getting the crew to a safe room and rendering the vessel useless to pirates.

NATO and individual countries have increased naval patrols in high-risk areas. Save Our Seafarers has called on private citizens to encourage their governments to better address the dangers of piracy in the hopes that "people power" will move nations to commit more military ships and be more aggressive in apprehending pirates for punishment. The group is also pushing authorities to trace and prosecute the organizers and financiers behind the pirates.

By November 2011, there had been 389 attacks worldwide, and 39 hijackings — 219 incidents and 26 of the hijackings in Somalia alone — with 13 vessels and 249 hostages still being held, according to the latest figures from the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre. Fifteen people had been killed. By the same point in 2010, there were 324 attacks, with 37 vessels hijacked and 639 hostages taken.

There's no doubt that the number of incidents is still dangerously high, which means the threat is not disappearing. But as the maritime industry begins responding, so do manufacturers, and there have never been more options for keeping crews and cargoes safe.

By Professional Mariner Staff