Roboboat to fight pirates

Published 18 September 2009

An American company has developed an automated counterpiracy system that could be outfitted to a vessel and set loose on patrol

In recent years, maritime shipping companies, private security firms, and navies around the globe have pondered the problem of high-seas piracy off Africa’s east coast, where more than 150 merchant ships have been attacked by small craft in 2009 alone. What to do? How to thwart a menace that can resemble a fishing boat? And across an area so vast?

C. J. Chivers writes that It was inevitable that weapons manufacturers and dealers would weigh in. Now one has. Imagine an aquatic drone, an unmanned boat that could patrol the waters off eastern Africa and allow threats to be assessed and engaged by remote control.

Chivers writes that this is an idea proposed by Timothy Sheridan, an American arms dealer who has been providing equipment to the Pentagon for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Sheridan, among other things, has arranged the shipment of tens of thousands of small arms for distribution to Iraqi security forces).

His latest venture is called Maritime Defense Systems International, LLC., which offers an automated counterpiracy system, as he calls it, that could be outfitted to a vessel and set loose on patrol. The system contains a forward-looking infrared radar for surveillance and target detection, an automated machine gun on a rotating mount and a satellite video uplink that would let a remote operator run the craft from on shore or a work station on a distant ship.

Chivers says we should think of a roboboat run by a trained naval officer, much as Air Force pilots fly Predator and Reaper drones. In the next several weeks, Sheridan will be testing a preliminary version, which combines several off-the-shelf products, on a GB-12 patrol craft from Radix Marine, a boat manufacturer in Yakima, Washington. The first tests will be on manned vessels, with the system operated by joystick by the crew from within.

If the tests prove successful and market interest develops, Sheridan hopes to sell a fully remote system. The idea, he says, could solve one of the confounding problems with countering piracy — the questions of who has weapons, and what determines their rules of engagement. Few people advocate arming crews, which poses many risks: tactical, legal, and potentially with liability.

An episode in recent days off the Somali coast pointed to the vulnerabilities of the vessels as they often sail now. Crew members on a North Korean ship were throwing Molotov cocktails — lit bottles of fuel, essentially — at two boats of pirates who fought back with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

Sheridan and Radix hope they may have found a solution. A weapon system operated remotely by naval officers could provide both coverage of the water and professional control over the decision to go weapons-free. The machine gun, Sheridan said, would have the range, penetration and firepower to cut up a skiff and pirates on board.

In one other possible configuration, if remote systems find market interest, they might also be fitted to merchant vessels as a self-defense means run from on shore by a commissioned officer behind a big screen, watching multiple vessels as they navigate dangerous patches of sea.

One obvious issue to work though would be rules and means to limit risks to civilian vessels that could be mistaken for pirate craft. For now, the proposal from industry suggests just how extensive the problem remains, and how elusive solutions have been.

It’s a big ocean out there, and we have to figure out how to cover it,” said Brad Goodspeed, director of new product development at Radix Marine. “But everyone draws the conclusion that they want live-fire weapons in limited hands.”