The most recent high-profile incidence of piracy off the lawless coast of Somalia appears to have ended well for everyone but the pirates. After holding the French luxury yacht Ponant for a week and allegedly securing a $2 million ransom from its owner, a band of Somali marauders headed for shore on April 11 with its booty. That's when French navy commandos pounced to free the 30-man crew and, in a dramatic helicopter raid, hunt down the six pirates. They now await charges in Paris.
So all's well that ends well? In fact it was a world of trouble. And as the frequency of piracy on the high seas grows, many ship owners and insurers aren't willing to wait for the navy to help them out. They are turning instead to an array of high-tech defenses to keep freebooters at bay. Among the offerings are night-vision equipment, high-powered water guns, ear-splitting klaxons, and a lubricant foam that make it difficult for pirates to get their footing. For commercial shipping vessels and yachts operating in high-risk areas of Southeast Asia, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, such products can mean the difference between smooth sailing and high-seas distress.
Last year pirates attacked 269 ships, took nearly 300 hostages and killed five people. That represents a 10% increase over the previous year, and it's probably only the half of it, given International Maritime Bureau estimates that an equal number of attacks go unreported. Shipping companies often prefer to swallow their losses than to risk losing customers or insurance rate hikes.
"There's no law in place, no government, no one to police the seas," said Paul Butler, operations director for EDS, a private maritime security firm based in France. International regulations make it difficult for law-abiding freight ships and yachts to carry weapons, often leaving them sitting ducks. It's a big lure for pirates, as 80% of the world's cargo is carried by sea.
That's an opportunity for Netherlands-based company Secure-Marine, which markets "Secure-Ship," a high-voltage fencing product similar to those used to enclose military bases. Wires strung from poles on deck emit 9000 volts, a non-lethal charge, but enough to deter intruders.
Or perhaps a virtual fence underwater? British defence firm QinetiQ has adapted its military underwater sonar system, Cerberus, into the private yacht market. It creates an underwater acoustic perimeter around a vessel that triggers an alert when broken. It "would identify an underwater swimmer, scuba diver or vehicle coming in under the water," said a company spokesman.
The best way to avoid pirates is to elude them. "The idea is to see them coming while you still have time to escape," says Munich Re Group maritime risk consultant Tillmann Kratz. Frequently pirates armed with street-market AK-47s approach ships posing as fishermen, coast guard officials or harbor police. To ferret out the fakers, ships could send robot snoops like the Sentry, a jet skisized remote-controlled scout also developed by QinetiQ. For those who want to send out a stronger deterrent message, there's the "Protector," a 30-foot unmanned surface vessel developed by BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and an Israeli defence firm. In its military configuration, the Protector is equipped with a 7.62mm remote-controlled machine gun, enough to give most pirates pause. It could be used for commercial protection to investigate and intercept boats up to 10 miles away.
Other military equipment may also prove useful in fighting piracy. The U.S. Marine Corps has tested a non-lethal weapon called the Mobility Denial System, a fancy name for a slippery chemical spray that coats surfaces and greatly reduces traction. Pirates' sea legs would be no help if they couldn't get their footing, so the spray would make boarding and hijacking vessels difficult. Another option is the long-range acoustic device or LRAD, originally developed by the U.S. military and manufactured by American Technology Corporation. This 33-inch dish emits a sound blast of up to 150 decibels, deafening and driving away would-be attackers. It proved remarkably effective in foiling a pirate attack on a British cruise ship off the Horn of Africa in 2005. But it's hardly foolproof, says Butler: "Eventually [pirates] get used to it and wear earmuffs." Still, even imperfect security measures can help deter pirates. "The risk is unknown, so all you can do is take precautions," said Butler. "If they see the boats are protected, they'll find another target."
But unless a ship has navy support lurking just beyond the horizon, a traditional swashbuckling firefight is a bad idea. "Today I wouldn't dare recommend to anyone to arm themselves to fight pirates," said Edwin Mast, a former captain and current nautical technical consultant. "In the old days when they had knives and sticks, yes. But today they have machine guns."
Mast says that as the number of yachts and people who can afford them increases, so will investment in high-tech maritime security. "We feel that this is a boom market," says Mast, "and that they will sooner or later become targets."
After its naval success against the Somali pirates, the French government called for the United Nations to create an international force to fight maritime piracy. French Prime Minister François Fillon said "France would naturally be ready to participate" in an UN-mandated force to "work to secure the waterways of this region."
It's a first step, but the world's oceans and shipping routes are vast, and governance over them remains uncharted territory. "It would help to have an international task force and legitimate power to apprehend and prosecute, but who's going to pay for that?" asked Kratz. "Realistically this will be a short term measure or something that won't happen for a long time." Until then, technology will attempt to fill the gap.