Rough waters: Fighting modern-day pirates with technology

February 11, 2009

In the past year, maritime shipping has suffered a resurgence of piracy, at a level that the world has not seen since the early 18th century.

Sailors working off the Horn of Africa have been particularly hard hit: last year, records show that 125 ships were attacked and 45 seized.

Real numbers are likely much higher, as piracy is believed to be widely under-reported. One of the world's busiest shipping lanes, about 20,000 ships annually pass through the Gulf of Aden on their way to and from the Suez Canal -- carrying a tenth of world trade.

Unlike the popular image of pirates seen in movies and books, modern pirates are more likely to wield machine guns than muskets; and the crime remains as difficult to fight as it ever did. Piracy is an extremely profitable and attractive occupation in a region characterized by lawlessness, bringing in multi-million dollar ransoms for the release of hostages, ships and cargoes.

Piracy has nearly cut off humanitarian aid deliveries to Somalia and has caused shipping insurance rates to skyrocket. Regional economies suffer as ships increasingly choose to go around the Cape of Good Hope. Given the number of oil tankers in the region, it seems only a matter of time before we see an environmental disaster of the Exxon-Valdez scale.

However, just as technology may have helped to promote the fall of the Robert Louis Stevenson-type of pirate, say historians (increased size and speed may have helped merchant vessels evade pursuing pirates), there is hope that technological advances will help protect cargos, vessels and crews.

Unosat aids monitoring, tracking and evading

Satellite-based maps produced by using grid technology are one promising anti-piracy tool. Different versions of these maps can tell the location of reported incidents and when they occurred, the identity and location of highjacked vessels, and the geographic areas with the highest density of attacks -- accurate to within 100 meters. Some are offered in 3-D imagery.

UNOSAT, a co-operative project between the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Program, and the European Organization of High Energy Physics (CERN), delivers satellite images to relief and development organizations. For the past five years, UNOSAT has worked on Somali-related security and humanitarian issues; it has monitored Somali pirate activity since last June as part of a UN Security Council resolution.

Typically, computer-intensive UNOSAT raw images are transferred to EGEE, where programs heavily compress satellite images for transmission over low-bandwidth connections, allowing users to access the latest maps from devices as simple as mobile phones. In this way, merchant ships, for example, can avoid areas where the latest assaults have been reported, and military vessels can know where to deploy.

Later this month, UNICRI, the UN's research organization for pirate-fighting, will hold its 'Stakeholders Meeting on Maritime Piracy on the Somali Coast' on 28 January. This meeting will gather those affected and outline hoped-for practical outcomes.
Aside from pirate fighting, UNOSAT is involved with many other projects. Learn more at

International Science Grid

Related Technology Articles from Brightsurf:

December issue SLAS Technology features 'advances in technology to address COVID-19'
The December issue of SLAS Technology is a special collection featuring the cover article, ''Advances in Technology to Address COVID-19'' by editors Edward Kai-Hua Chow, Ph.D., (National University of Singapore), Pak Kin Wong, Ph.D., (The Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA) and Xianting Ding, Ph.D., (Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China).

October issue SLAS Technology now available
The October issue of SLAS Technology features the cover article, 'Role of Digital Microfl-uidics in Enabling Access to Laboratory Automation and Making Biology Programmable' by Varun B.

Robot technology for everyone or only for the average person?
Robot technology is being used more and more in health rehabilitation and in working life.

Novel biomarker technology for cancer diagnostics
A new way of identifying cancer biomarkers has been developed by researchers at Lund University in Sweden.

Technology innovation for neurology
TU Graz researcher Francesco Greco has developed ultra-light tattoo electrodes that are hardly noticeable on the skin and make long-term measurements of brain activity cheaper and easier.

April's SLAS Technology is now available
April's Edition of SLAS Technology Features Cover Article, 'CURATE.AI: Optimizing Personalized Medicine with Artificial Intelligence'.

Technology in higher education: learning with it instead of from it
Technology has shifted the way that professors teach students in higher education.

Post-lithium technology
Next-generation batteries will probably see the replacement of lithium ions by more abundant and environmentally benign alkali metal or multivalent ions.

Rethinking the role of technology in the classroom
Introducing tablets and laptops to the classroom has certain educational virtues, according to Annahita Ball, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, but her research suggests that tech has its limitations as well.

The science and technology of FAST
The Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), located in a radio quiet zone, with the targets (e.g., radio pulsars and neutron stars, galactic and extragalactic 21-cm HI emission).

Read More: Technology News and Technology Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to