Saving The World’s Treasure: Can Technology Stop Pirates?

Simon Davies

When you hear the word pirates, you might think of eye patches, crosses on maps, parrots on shoulders, or all of the above in a Disney movie. Despite the fact that the fictional kind of pirate has thoroughly permeated the common consciousness, Somali pirates have been a real threat to international shipping since the early 21st century.

We need some great plans to combat these sea thieves. In this day and age, technology seems to be the best answer.

Pirates are a real threat to the global economy

Yep, they’re real. On June 23rd, 2017, a group of armed pirates hijacked a Thai oil tanker and drained the vessel of 1.5 million litres of diesel fuel.

Studies have shown that more than 80% of the world’s trade is transported by sea, which means that our economy is highly reliant on the shipping trade. It’s no mystery why pirates seem eager to hijack merchant’s vessels and claim the “treasure” on board. Maritime piracy is a big problem that can take a sizeable cut from the world’s economy—$6 billion, to be exact.

Satellite imagery provides eyes from above

Maritime tracking using the latest in satellite technology is the new solution on the horizon, according to Earth observation experts Earth-i, who have discussed how satellite data helps prevent maritime piracy. With high-resolution images, it’s possible to track ship and vessel movements to ensure safe passage for passenger and cargo boats across the world’s seas.

Monitoring, observation, and tracking technology has been used to surveil trade at sea with precision and reliability. Pirates can disable terrestrial AIS (Automatic Identification Systems), which are used to track ships and vessels, but the same cannot be said for satellite AIS.

Companies using satellite AIS also benefit from the tech’s capability of providing coverage for the most remote parts of the Earth and sea 24/7.

Unmanned stealth vessels can take on pirates remotely

A self-made millionaire has taken the treacherous seas’ biggest problem into his own hands by inventing a one-of-a-kind high-tech stealth boat.

The Ghost is a seaborne combat vessel made by Greg Sancoff’s startup, Juliet Marine. It’s called “Ghost” because it’s “virtually invisible to sonar and radar detection through its aluminium and stainless steel construction.”

Sancoff said that although the boat can function as a speedboat and attack ships for Navy SEALS, it is best suited for fighting pirates. Gas turbines are used for the engine, and the ship rides above the water on robotically stabilised pontoons, making the vessel steady on rough seas.

Inside the high-tech vessel, the battleship is controlled by an array of computer screens, but Greg Sancoff said that the anti-pirate machine can be modified for unmanned operations, potentially making the Ghost moniker even more fitting.

Unmanned stealth vessels may be an effective way to combat pirates, but they are expensive. That expense may be justified if Juliet Marine is accurate in saying that two Ghosts, which would cost $20 million, could protect thousands of square miles.

Hardware for tackling pirates head-on isn’t always effective

Large budgets have already been spent on hardware for directly tackling pirates, with less than impressive results.

The long-range acoustic device (LRAD) uses a pain-inducing sound beam that has been used to drive pirates away, and the ADS (active denial system) transmits a narrow beam of electromagnetic energy to heat the skin without causing permanent damage. The wave can be used to penetrate beneath the skin and cause an unbearable burning sensation, forcing pirates to jump overboard.

Unfortunately, as Wired discussed in an article titled “Sonic, Pain Weapons All Wrong for Pirate Fight,” these options are severely limited. The LRAD can be rendered completely useless by pirates’ firearms; guns such as the AK-47 out-range the non-lethal sonic weapon. Meanwhile, the ADS, costing $3 million, is known to have harmed the people using it.

Evasion remains the best defense

Despite the proliferation of high-tech solutions for taking on pirates, HowStuffWorks maintains that the best defense against pirates can be low-tech: “The best defense against a pirate attack is evasion.” They have recommended that crews encountering pirates should fire flares, sound their alarms, call for help, and warn other ships in the area when encountering pirates. They should then commit to outmaneuvring the pirates.

With the ability to monitor the progress and route of vessels, shipping companies using satellite systems to track their ships will find avoiding pirates far easier. This informed-evasion not only keeps the monitored crews safe; it can also provide greater security for all vessels at sea. If shipping companies share their insights (gained through satellite data) with the relevant authorities, they will always be one step ahead. Removing the element of surprise from the arsenal of pirates, which is arguably one of their best weapons, could help prevent maritime piracy for good.

For more on technology’s role in security, see Ransomware Attack Highlights Need For Comprehensive Cybersecurity.


About Simon Davies

Simon Davies is a London-based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues, and solutions. He works explores new markets and disruptive technologies and communicates those recent developments to a wide, public audience. Simon is also a contributor at socialbarrel.com, socialnomics.net, and tech.co. Follow Simon @simontheodavies on Twitter.