Bring Forth Fair Winds

High-tech, nonlethal weapons help keep pirates at bay

Modern-day pirates have laid down their swords in exchange for GPS systems, assault rifles, rocket launchers and semiautomatic pistols. Their objective has changed from plundering to demanding ransoms in excess of $1 million in exchange for the safe release of hostages.

The recent news concerning Somali pirates has sparked debate about whether ships should carry firearms onboard. There are key players on both sides of the argument. International guidelines, vessel owners and insurance agencies discourage carrying firearms, while recently freed hostage Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama told Congress in April he is in favor of arming select, trained crewmembers—but acknowledges that it should not be the final or only solution to the problem.

As the debate continues, high-tech, non-lethal weapons are available to protect cargo and crew. These alternatives are meant to prevent boarding, and include sound weapons, slippery gels, electric fences and water cannons.

Loud and Clear
Sound weapons include long-range acoustic devices and magnetic acoustic devices. These are communication systems that deliver hailing and warning messages with voice and tonal clarity in a highly focused directional beam at great distances. Once warning messages are broadcast to approaching vessels, and it is determined that the vessel is hostile, these products produce high-pitched deterrent sirens, much like unbearable fire alarms, from 140 to 155 dB to deter attackers. These sound levels can cause permanent ear damage and hearing loss as the normal noise pain threshold is at 130 dB.

American Technology’s LRAD RX features an integrated camera with 26x optical and 312x digital zoom and an optional high-intensity 7.5 million candlepower searchlight. The LRAD RX transmits messages and sirens beyond 1,000 meters with an intensity of 152 dB at 1 meter.

MAD International’s magnetic acoustic devices are based on planar magnetic technology. The devices communicate with oncoming vessels in multiple languages at distances from 150 meters to 12.5 kilometers. The LTPMS- 4 and LT-PMS-6 deliver 80 dB at 3,300 feet and at 4,100 feet, and with a maximum output of 140 and 142 dB, respectively.

“One consistent fact has been the use of the element of surprise by the pirates,” said Vahan Simidian II, CEO of HPV Technologies. “Because of the size differences of the vessels, it takes some time for the pirates to board, necessitating the need for surprise. By communicating from a great distance and letting them know in their language that we are aware of their presence, the element of surprise has been eliminated, and they will choose another target.”

By Force
High-pressure and high-volume water cannons can be used to shoot water with tremendous force at would-be attackers. The force is great enough to knock pirates off their boats and flood the boats.

The Force 50 from Unifire is a 50-millimeter cannon with a capacity of blasting up to 2,000 liters per minute at 12 bars with a 65 meter reach, and the Force 80 is an 80-millimeter cannon that shoots up to 5,000 liters per minute at 12 bars with a reach of up to 90 meters. The cannons can be networked with a video camera and controlled remotely via a joystick from inside the ship with the Unifire Control System. This allows crew members to safely operate the system without being in the line of fire. A “record and play” function repeats sequences for horizontal, vertical and spray-pattern actions.

“The operator can send all cannons into automatic mode, then take control of the cannon nearest the pirates to target them specifically and prevent them from gaining access to the ship,” said Roger Barrett James, director of international sales and marketing at Unifire. “Or, in a panic situation, the operator can simply hit ‘play’ and send all cannons into automatic mode.”

Unifire is working with Raytheon to integrate the water cannon with Marine Small Target Tracker to detect and track small boats approaching a ship during the day or night. The tracking system displays the exact range, bearing and speed of an approaching boat.

Jolt to a Stop
Once boarding seems imminent, a ship can electrify its hull to prevent pirates from boarding.

Secure-Marine offers Secure Ship, which provides three layers of protection: it detects boarding attempts and warns the crew, emits loud sirens and activates flood lights, and uses a 9,000-volt collapsible electrical fence that surrounds the ship.

“Once pirates board a ship, most rescue teams will not actively pursue rescue efforts due to hostage situations, but as long as they are in their boats, they can be dealt with,” said Raphael Kahn, CEO of Secure-Marine. “Therefore, the main benefit of using Secure Ship is to make boarding difficult and delay attackers until help arrives.”

The system uses a back-up battery to ensure continuous protection even when the power supply is cut.

Foot Loose
The Mobility Denial System, developed by Southwest Research Institute, sprays a non-toxic, highly slippery gel to inhibit the movement of individuals on treated surfaces.

“It’s similar to walking on ice and is very effective at creating a non-lethal barrier between the good guys and the bad guys,” said Errol Brigance, program manager at Southwest Research Institute.

For shipping applications, the MDS is available as a portable backpack system that crew members can use to easily spray the side of the ship or on the deck. For a more permanent solution, the system can be affixed at strategic locations on the ship for remote operation by the crew. A third option involves integrating the system with the ship’s fire protection systems to allow the crew to spray a large area quickly.

When it comes to pirate attacks, the best offense is a good defense. Early warning and taking proactive measures to deter attackers before pirates get too close are the most effective methods to ensure the safety of the crew. Though none of these products alone can guarantee safety, the idea is to use a multilayered approach to deter criminal activity and encourage pirates to relent and seek out a softer target.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Security Today.

About the Author

Sherleen Mahoney is a Web managing editor at 1105 Media.

  • Environmental Protection
  • Occupational Health & Safety
  • Infrastructure Solutions Group
  • Spaces4Learning
  • Campus Security & Life Safety