New toy for US coastguards

December 19, 2001

A ROCKET-PROPELLED dragnet that slows drug smugglers' boats and subdues the crew with tear gas may sound like something out of a James Bond movie, but it's actually the latest idea from the US Navy.

Tired of watching drug smugglers escape, the Navy and its coastguard colleagues want an effective non-lethal weapon. Since October, the US Coast Guard has seized over 5 tonnes of cocaine in US waters, but estimates suggest that may be only 10 per cent of what gets through.

In key smuggling regions like the Bahamas, the Coast Guard has helicopters that can intercept speeding boats-- providing they can get them to stop. Coast Guard pursuit boats are only capable of speeds up to 35 knots (65 kilometres per hour), whereas drug-running boats often reach 40 knots, says Coast Guard spokesman Greg Warm.

So Dick Cavanagh and his team at the US Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, Florida, are trying a new tack--based on an idea for clearing sea mines. "The mine-clearer is a net with two rockets on the front to deploy it and a couple of parachutes at the back to help spread it out," says Cavanagh. When explosives attached to the net are detonated, any mines beneath it explode too. He wondered if the rocket-assisted net could be adapted to trap speedboats.

Cavanagh says that if the Coast Guard pursuit boat fires off a big enough net, some of it will drag in the water when it is fired over the drug smugglers' boat. Adding weights to the edge of the net draws the parachutes at the back under water, creating heavy drag that slows the boat.

The net could also be modified to subdue those on board. By rigging a tear-gas canister to a tension sensor built into the net, a gas cloud would envelope the boat as soon as the net starts dragging in the water. To prevent smugglers cutting the net free, the Navy says you could run electrified wires inside the netting fibres--so cutting the net with a knife would expose the wires and give the smuggler an electric shock.

Cavanagh is now looking for investors who might be interested in developing a prototype, and eventually a full-scale product if it works.
Author: Ian Sample

New Scientist issue: 22/29 December 2001


New Scientist

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