Technology to take down the pirates

No longer a regional threat, it is time to look at a multi-layered strategy for tackling piracy

Source:, written by: Henry Evans

Mention piracy and thoughts will typically turn to Somalia and its pirates, who have terrorised the waters of the Gulf of Aden in recent years. Various measures have been taken to combat piracy in the region, many of which have centred on human intervention in the form of navy patrols and armed guards keeping watch on open deck.

According to the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) latest quarterly report on ‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships’, the number of acts of piracy reported off Somalia has significantly decreased in the first few months of 2013. Despite the drop-off in attacks off Eastern Africa, the report served to remind the industry of the global nature of the piracy threat; ship hijackings were recorded in the Gulf of Guinea off Western Africa whilst Indonesia ranked highest for the number of reported attacks with 25 incidents.

Although private security personnel and international navy patrols appear to have deterred Somali pirates, the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Best Management Practice advice on Somalia based piracy preaches the employment of additional physical measures. In addition to human resources, ship operators are advised to reinforce defences with tangible deterrence and prevention devices to counter pirate incursions.

And as pirate activity seems to have intensified beyond areas of notoriety such as Somalia, relying solely on the protection provided by security personnel can no longer be regarded as an adequate strategy for defending a ship from attack.

Speculating that financial belt-tightening could be leading some owners and operators to limit their outlay on protection measures, Pottengal Mukundan, director of the IMB, says: “The use of armed guards should not exclude other means, recommended for example under the Best Management Practices (BMP) to be used on board. It is recommended that armed guards are always deployed in addition to and not in place of other anti-piracy measures.”

Taking the lead in advancing the role played by non-lethal physical anti-boarding devices is GAC Maritime Security Services. Over the last 12 months, the company has partnered with several manufacturers of innovative physical protection products, ranging from perimeter razor wire to water cannon.

Water cannon

Recommended as part of the IMO’s BMP for combatting piracy, the services of Swedish based water cannon manufacturer, Unifire AB, have been enlisted by GAC. For Unifire, the concept of using high-pressured streams of water to deter potential assailants has developed out of their existing portfolio of cross-industry products, including water cannons for professional fire-fighting use.

Dealing with a threat as unpredictable and volatile as piracy, the flexibility and user-friendliness of an anti-piracy system is paramount to its success. These are characteristics that Unifire has kept at the forefront of the design strategy behind its anti-pirate water cannon system, SeaSerpent.

At the heart of the system are two principle components; firstly, remote control water cannons that are mounted over the ship’s railings, enabling them to provide full protection against approaching ships and, secondly, advanced control systems that allow an operator to easily and accurately control the direction and spray pattern, open and close valves, record and play pre-programmed sequences, and even interact with other ship systems (such as radar, infrared cameras).

With a vessel exposed from all sides in open sea, the system is flexible enough to allow ship operators to choose a configuration that covers all angles of attack. Roger James, the company’s Director of International Sales & Marketing, says: “A network of water cannons can be installed around the vulnerable areas of the perimeter of a ship, all of which can be customised to operate off one joystick if desired. However, a single joystick might not be practical, as you might want more than one person controlling multiple cannons, such as when two or more skiffs attack simultaneously.

“Unifire has also developed special mounting pipes, which enable the cannons to aim not only at skiffs up to 80 meters out, but also to aim straight down along the ship’s side to protect against a skiff that may have reached the ship in an attempt to ascend to the deck. Coupled with rotational capacity of up to 350 degrees, the cannons can be directed in almost any direction, thereby covering any angle of attack.”

Integral to a device such as water cannon is consideration of the operator’s safety given the armed nature of most pirate assaults. This is uppermost in the IMO’s best practice recommendations, in which it is advised that manual operation is not conducted from an exposed position. This is a factor that has been fully considered by Unifire in the design of the SeaSerpent. “The system is operated remotely from a safe haven such as the bridge and the water cannons can even be operated semi- and fully-automatically. Unifire also offers wireless radio remote controls and other custom integrated control options,” says James.

Razor wire

Critical to the effectiveness of non-lethal protection devices is their visibility on the vessel, which Mukundan believes is why water cannons and razor wire represent the way forward in vessel protection: “Technologies such as razor wire and water cannons are valid because they are visible. When the pirate sees something like this, they may go for a vessel that appears to be less obviously protected, unless they’re sure they can overcome these measures.”

At the end of 2012, GAC gave its backing to Mobile Defense Systems’ (MDS) anti-grapple razor wire solution, called PirateFence. The modular-based perimeter protection system consists of separate coil segments, designed for application in sections to handicap any pirate attempt to peel away the system in its entirety.

The system uses razor wire with a galvanized steel core that is resistant to cutting, except with high quality bolt cutters. The wire is also sharpened with razor blade-like edges; however, its easy-to-use ‘roll’ design ensures that the risk of crew injury is virtually eliminated during installation or transportation of the cylinder units.

Managing director and founder of MDS, Danielle DiBruno, explains the choice of material: “The razor wire we chose to use is called Razor Ribbon as it is brand and type used by every high-security prison in the United States to prevent prisoners from escaping. It is both a highly visual and physical deterrence and based on my knowledge is not currently used in maritime applications.”

Innovative engine disabling

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the vessel protection technologies acquired by GAC, Netherlands-based Westmark BV’s P-trap engine disabling device has attracted significant attention from the industry. A winner at the Safety at Sea International Awards as well as a finalist in categories at the Seatrade Awards and Lloyd’s List Awards in 2011, the P-trap device is also designed to offer non-lethal protection to a vessel.

Designed to create a security zone around the ship, P-trap consists of a set of long, thin lines that can be deployed overboard to act as a barrier to prevent unidentified vessels from approaching too close. The lines are carried on side booms that can extend up to 10 metres from the ship’s bow on both sides of the ship just below the water surface.

Describing the process involved in disabling the engine of an oncoming vessel, Maurits F. Westerbeek van Eerten, Director of Westmark BV, says: “The weak link in the P-Trap lines will ensure that the system behaves in a non-lethal manner. When another vessel comes too close to be comfortable, the external vessel sails into the line spread. The engine’s propeller will get trapped, a weak link will activate, and the vessel is released including the P-Trap line.”

Looking for an additional edge in an increasingly competitive market is a critical factor in the design of vessel protection devices. Westmark believes that the P-Trap can offer this edge by alleviating vessels of the need to implement one of the IMO’s suggested BMPs when threatened by a pirate vessel.

“Contrary to the BMP, heavy manoeuvring will not be necessary under an attack. Heavy manoeuvring is done to keep the attackers away from the side of your own vessel”, says Westmark. Due to the P-Trap’s creation of a security zone, the threat of pirate vessels approaching the side of a ship is automatically mitigated.

Westmark says: “P-Trap enables captains to keep their maximum speed and not lose 25 per cent of their own vessel speed as a result of heavy manoeuvring. The captain will not have to focus on immediately changing its course but on the efforts of getting the crew to the mustering stations for preparation to evacuate into the Citadel.”

Newbuild design

However, as innovative and adaptable anti-piracy solutions continue to flood the industry, Mukundan is keen to emphasise that consideration of the piracy threat should start at the design stage of building new vessels as well.

“It is much better that these measures are implemented at the time when the ship is built rather than subsequently when it becomes much more expensive. At this stage there are some simple and effective options. For example, when the pirates try to board a ship, they try and hook ladders onto the gunwale; so if you can design a wider gunwale, then it makes it more difficult for them to hook the ladders on. It is also much more cost effective to design an efficient citadel when the vessel is built rather than later,” Mukundan says.