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As Somali pirates step up attacks, shippers consider technology options for defense

Piracy on the high seas is making a comeback this year, particularly off the coast of the African nation Somalia, where raiders are using increasingly more powerful and sophisticated technologies to attack ships and hold their crew and cargo for ransom. Technology makers are hoping to come to the rescue with ultraloud sound systems, electrified guardrails and other gadgets designed to help shippers avoid becoming the next victim.

Perhaps the most alarming example was the taking of the Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, loaded with 33 Russian-made T72 tanks and ammunition originally bound for Kenya. The Somali pirates, who commandeered the ship in September, are demanding $20 million for its return; the tanker is currently moored off the coast of Somalia.

A total of 199 incidents were reported to the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC)  during the first nine months of this year. The third quarter of 2008 saw reported incidents spike to 83, a significant  jump from the 53 reported in the first quarter and the 63 reported in the second quarter. The reported acts of piracy this year have included 115 vessels boarded, 31 vessels hijacked, and 23 vessels fired upon. A total of 581 crew members were taken hostage, nine kidnapped, nine killed and seven missing and presumed dead, according to the IMB, which is part of the International Chamber of Commerce's anticrime arm.

BBC News reported earlier this week that in the past five years, the number of pirate attacks worldwide declined from 452 incidents in 2003 to 282 in 2007. But it is a different story off the coast of Somalia; pirate attacks have increased by 100 percent in the past year.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has cost its victims as much as $30 million, according to a paper published last month by Roger Middleton, a consultant  at the U.K. think tank, Chatham House. The pirates are reportedly using portable air-defense systems, rocket-propelled grenades, global positioning systems (GPS) and satellite phones to carry out their activities. It is also likely, Middleton writes, that these pirates are plugged into an international network that feeds information from ports in the Gulf of Aden, Europe and Asia back to Somalia. The paper also argues that Somali pirates may be agents of international terrorist networks.

For these pirates, speed and stealth is essential—it generally takes these raiders only about 15 minutes to board a ship once they are close enough to be spotted, Middleton writes. Some crews use sonic weapons and high-pressure water hoses to repel pirate boardings. Ships most vulnerable to a successful pirate attacks are those with low sides, traveling at low speeds and with only a skeleton crew to keep watch and/or fight off attackers.

One type of sonic cannon that many ships are now deploying is the Magnetic Acoustic Device (MAD), BBC News reported earlier this week. MAD Arrays, made by Costa Mesa, Calif.'s, HPV Technologies LLC, create a loudspeaker system powered by a planar magnetic driver. An array of eight MAD A9 elements has been measured in excess of 120 decibels (dB) at 200 feet, according to the company's Web site. "Sounds in excess of 120 dB may cause immediate irreversible hearing impairment, besides being quite painful for most individuals," Argentinean researcher Federico Miyara, also a member of the Committee on Scientific and Noise Interdisciplinary Ecology, wrote in a 2000 paper.

HPV CEO Vahan Simidian told BBC News that MAD technology is currently used by ships to alert pirates that they have been spotted (and have lost the element of surprise). With the proper acoustical systems installed on ships, MAD could be tuned to create a higher decibel rate that could disorient and injure a person without ear protection.

Other options  include defending a ship from attack. Secure Ship is a 9,000-volt electrical guardrail made by Secure-Marine, a company in the Netherlands. The U.K.'s Cambridge Consultants Limited is developing holographic radar technology that would provide continuous 3D images of the area around a ship to help crews detect small boats sooner and take evasive maneuvers.

It's clear that ships traveling in dangerous waters need to protect themselves. In April, pirates attacked the Japanese tanker MV Takayama with rocket-propelled grenades, the AP reported. Although the pirates were unsuccessful in this case, the strike raised concerns about the risk of fire and the potential for environmentally hazardous cargo being released into the water that would devastate marine and bird life for years to come.

Middleton's report concludes that the most powerful weapon against piracy will be decidedly low tech--peace and opportunity in Somalia, coupled with an effective and reliable police force and judiciary.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Torben Soettrup)

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