Page last updated at 09:24 GMT, Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Robotic vessels against pirates

Robotic patrol boats could safeguard the seas from piracy and fight ocean-going people traffickers, reports Tracey Logan in the BBC World Service's Discovery programme.

Seabourn Spirit
Pirates attacked the Seabourn Spirit in November
Passengers aboard the Seabourn Spirit, a luxury liner sailing off the coast of Somalia, came face to face last month with the growing problem of piracy, especially planned assaults and ocean hijackings using fast boats and sophisticated weapons.

As the pirates go hi-tech, so ships must use more advanced technology in their defence, according to the latest report from the International Maritime Bureau.

Anti-piracy technologies endorsed by the bureau include an unmanned spy plane, the Inventus UAV, for aerial surveillance of risky waters.

Others include Secure-Ship, a 9,000 volt electric fence that when rigged around ship's deck stops the pirates from boarding, and ShipLoc, a hidden tagging device for ships that allows satellites to track ships on behalf of their owners even after a hijacking.

In their defence against pirates off the coast of Somalia, the Seabourn Spirit's crew used an acoustic weapon that focused a deafening alarm sound on the attackers, hastening their retreat.

Sea-faring bots

In the future, robotics could play a role in anti-piracy defences, though the technology has yet to be endorsed by the International Maritime Bureau.

The Alondra Rainbow was seized by pirates in 1999 - International Maritime Bureau photograph
Pirates are coming up with more ways of seizing ships
Speaking to BBC World Service's Discovery for its programme on the future of shipping safety, Keith Henderson of Marine Robotics International explained how unmanned robotic vessels could help.

Marine Robotics have created vessels called Ghost Guard which can patrol the seas along pre-programmed routes, overseen by a single, human controller on shore.

The boats can also escort other ships through dangerous waters. Video and other equipment on board these robotic ships allow their on-shore controllers to see and interact with the crew of any vessels they encounter:

"They could go alongside, there's a loudspeaker and a microphone so they could have a conversation with the vessel," said Mr Henderson.

"And if they feel that there's something suspicious then they could call up a naval patrol vessel."

People smugglers

"If the vessel gets lost or damaged or sunk, then there's no loss of life," he added.

Marine Robotic Vessels Ghost Guard
The bot vehicles can be pre-programmed with a route
"If the robotic vessel goes alongside a suspicious-looking boat, and they suddenly open fire or throw hand grenades, or fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the vessel to take it out, then yes, there's a cost factor but nobody's lost their lives."

Mr Henderson said that the dispensability of such craft makes them particularly suitable to the changing nature of world piracy, including the area of people smuggling.

"A normal naval patrol boat, if he gives chase to a smuggler often has to stop because the smuggler will start to throw people overboard. It's a ploy they often use, and, of course saving lives is a priority for the navy boat.

"But with a remote piloted vessel, even if the navy has to stop, the robotic vessel can continue the chase right back to its harbour, or even follow it into a bay where it starts putting people ashore.

"And of course then the smugglers' position can be reported back to the mother vessel."

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