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Robot Ships And Pepper Spray—the Latest in Pirate-Fighting Tech

New technology developments are looking to combat piracy and terrorism on the high seas

Ransom money is dropped near the ship MV Faina in 2009 while the ship was occupied by pirates (Michael R. McCormick/US Navy/Handout/CNP/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The age of naval battles between huge ships on the high seas seems to have passed into distant memory. Instead, some of the most devastating attacks on giant vessels in recent years have been executed by boats small enough to get through the larger ships’ defenses. 

But now, governments around the world are working on technology designed to stop these attacks. In the U.K, researchers are working on a remote monitoring system—called the MATRiX system—that resituates the traditional responsibilities of a lookout to land-bound control rooms. The system has a connected network of anti-pirate deterrents attached to the outside of the ship. If a threat is detected, the deterrant system releases two relatively simple tools—nets that will catch in the propellers of attacking boats and a fog of capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray (and bear repellent). 

While merchant vessels have problems with pirates, military vessels face a different ideological set of challenges, including terrorist attacks like the one on the USS Cole fourteen years ago. In that attack, a small boat filled with explosives managed to get close to the Cole and blow a hole in the side of the ship. 

In order to deal with the threat of small boats without putting sailors in harms way, the Navy has developed a system that can convert any boat into a fully automated ship, capable of confronting an enemy vessel without risking the lives of military personnel. The automated boats can work in tandem, swarming a target vessel, earning the system the moniker "swarmboats." The swarmboat system was tested in August on the James River. 

The software that directs the vessels is called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing), and was originally developed by NASA for Mars rover missions. But as advanced as the swarmboat system is, humans are still involved, as Wired reports

The ships in August’s test didn’t open fire, but the Navy is getting there, though it says robots will not decide when or whom to attack. “If there is any kind of designation, any kind of targeting,” says Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research, “there is always a human in the loop.” If a boat loses communication with its human captain, who may be halfway around the world, it goes dead in the water.

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