Fighting pirates with laser cannons

For commercial shipping operations, the modern piracy problem is deeply troubling. But defense contractor BAE Systems says it has a solution: non-lethal laser blasters.

"Non-Lethal Laser to Defend Against Pirate Attacks" is a phrase you'd expect to find atop a GI-Joe cartoon script, or in a pitch for a video game. This week, however, it cropped up in a significantly less fictional context: in an announcement from British defense firm BAE Systems.

The company has successfully tested a "bespoke Neodymium Yttrium Aluminium Garnet laser" with an accompanying targeting system, which it claims could be used as a non-lethal deterrent against pirates, particularly in the treacherous waters off the coast of Somalia. The laser is a non-lethal device, aimed at distracting or temporarily disabling pirates if they sail too close to a ship, or temporarily blinding them in the case of armed threat.

The resurgence of piracy over the last decade has proven difficult to combat, for reasons that aren't immediately obvious. Somalian pirates, well-equipped as they may be, are routinely able to extract multi-million dollar ransoms from international shipping companies, all of which have much greater resources at their disposal, in theory. (And which carry the flags of nations far more powerful than war-torn Somalia.)

The most obvious solution--arming ships--is fraught with problems. Having shipping companies hire their own armed security forces is unappealing for the companies that insure their cargo and crew. (While pirates are often able to extract ransoms, rarely are crewmembers injured or killed--even less often is an entire ship lost.) Insurance companies have begun to offer their own trusted security details, but using one of these services can leave shippers exposed to liability should a conflict escalate to violence. From McGill University's international law blog:

[Security details] raise tough legal liability questions. When an armed guard mistakenly shoots an innocent fishing vessel, who is at fault? According to the International Maritime Bureau and the traditional approach to employment contracts, it’s the ship owner, not the armed guard, who will have to deal with the sticky consequences. What court has jurisdiction over this international issue is another matter altogether, complicated by the diversity of national interests represented in a single ship.

Even if these obstacles prove navigable, the post notes, many countries prohibit armed ships from entering commercial ports.

BAE's laser cannon is part of a larger initiative with which the company hopes to sidestep insurance and liability concerns entirely, enlisting a range of non-lethal deterrents that, while unlikely to put a stop to piracy altogether, could give shipowners a means of making their vessels less attractive to would-be marauders. Says BAE Systems business development manager Bryan Hore:

Laser distraction is part of a wider programme of anti-piracy technologies being developed by BAE Systems, including radar systems, which utilises expertise and knowledge from the military domain. The aim of the laser distraction project is now to develop a non-lethal deterrent to pirates, which has no lasting effects, which can work in a maritime environment, be operated by the crew at no risk, and be cost effective.

According to the ICC's International Maritime Bureau, effective anti-piracy measures can't come soon enough: 2010 saw 430 attacks on shipping vessels.

(Via Discovery News)

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