Following a recent spate of high-profile piracy incidents, a report released by the International Maritime Bureau in January 2009 confirmed the obvious – piracy is becoming a serious problem. The coast of Africa has, in particular, become a hotbed for the pirate community, with the area experiencing a 200% rise in piracy incidents – including 111 attacks and 49 vessel hijacks last year.
The facts continue to speak for themselves. Last year, a total of nearly 900 crew members were taken hostage in the region – 32 sailors injured, 11 killed and 21 are still missing but presumed dead. By 15 May 2009, a further 29 ships had been hijacked and 472 crew members taken hostage. As well as the risk to human life, the pirates also threaten important trade and transit routes connecting Africa, Asia and Europe to Persian Gulf oil as well as other valuable commodities.
The EU, Nato and other US-led coalitions have reacted accordingly with some 20 foreign warships now patrolling the waters off the coast of Somalia – home to one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes – on any given day. Furthermore, naval forces have also begun investing in new technologies capable of tracing and combating piracy more efficiently – as exemplified by a European navy's decision to deploy a new real-time communications support system known as the maritime boarding system.
Maritime boarding system
Developed in collaboration by UK-based Global Secure Systems (GSS), Danish defence software company Systematic and Rajant Corporation of the US, the maritime boarding system provides a live video and voice feed for naval troops boarding a suspect vessel. Carried in a compact rucksack – with the camera residing on the shoulder, the system supplies real-time information which can be transmitted back to the mother ship using high bandwidth Wi-Fi connection.
Depending on the nature of the operation, the system can incorporate biometric tasks such as fingerprinting and photographs as well as GPS mapping. By offering enhanced communication methods, the system hopes to offer a quicker and safer inspection of potential pirate vessels in the problem region.
We caught up with GSS managing director David Hobson to find out more about the maritime boarding system's potential for combating piracy.
Alex Hawkes: When did the maritime boarding system actually enter a combat situation and how was it received?
David Hobson: The Global maritime boarding system first went into action in Somalia during November 2008. It functioned perfectly during its first use and has since assisted in the arrests of pirates and locating AK47s.
AH: Can you describe how the system can assist naval troops during the inspection of a suspect vessel?
DH: By giving the navy team on the mother ship the ability to see and hear exactly what is happening as a crew enters a suspect vessel, the system allows the navy to be much more thorough when examining the legitimacy of an operation. For example, the real-time reporting allows the crew back on the mother ship to give the team members onboard greater warning to potential risks. In particular, they could have a translator back on the mother ship reporting back to the team what the pirates are saying to one another.
Such transparency can be extended further by including multiple locations in the operation. The mesh technology means you could have the team reporting back to two or three vessels or helicopters, which again could increase the speed a naval force can react to a situation.
AH: When did GSS first become aware that there was a market demand for a security system specifically supporting naval forces in their quest to combat piracy?
DH: GSS has been operating in the military sector for about four years. As well as working with a range of system integrators, we have exhibited at shows such as Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi). In fact it was during that event, we were introduced to Systematic – the Danish company that produces the software application relating to the maritime boarding system.
They required a high-bandwidth carrier system that had to be rugged, portable and easy-to-use. We then spent 18 months working together developing the system and testing it with various naval forces.
AH: So what was the exact role of GSS in the development of the Global maritime boarding system?
DH: Our involvement with the project was much more then simply connecting the kit together. As well as developing the Wi-Fi connection, we had to produce the correct antennas and make the whole system fit in a backpack. We also bolted cameras and microphones to the unit so that the video-voice software could be efficiently and easily transmitted to the mother ship. A fair amount of pre-testing and sea trials were required to ensure it worked as requested.
Systematic was already developing the software side of things – such as the fingerprinting programmes and the GPS mapping – when GSS first became involved. What it didn't have, however, was a transport layer to make the system capable of operating out at sea.
AH: How hybrid is the communications technology used in the Global maritime boarding system?
DH: When you think about it, we are implementing very simple technology. I think there is sometimes a fear associated with new technologies but all we are doing is essentially broadcasting information.
The key to this system is the high bandwidth network connection, which is capable of stretching over a few miles. It does not rely on satellite communications – which tend to cost a lot of money – so once the system is setup, it costs relatively little to keep running.
AH: So the system only functions effectively if the team is kept within relative proximity to the mother ship?
DH: During the sea trials, bandwidth links usually stretched over several miles but I think the furthest we managed was nine or ten miles. As we are able to mesh the network, the distance could be increased to 20 miles if it was bounced off a helicopter.
Inevitably you lose some width each time the network 'hops' from one source to another. Similar technology is used by US troops in Iraq, where they have even implemented sentry drones in the desert to monitor areas up to 20 miles away from base.
A great deal of data can be run on such networks and the amount of camera technology we can interface with is incredible. The cameras used on the global maritime boarding system are quite basic but if they required night vision, for example, it would be easy to unbolt one camera and fix on another.
AH: Has the Global maritime boarding system attracted any interest from other naval forces since it was first implemented at the end of 2008?
DH: Yes, we are currently in negotiations with three or four other European navies. What is critical about this technology is that it is quick to implement, relatively cheap and can effectively save lives. Piracy is a major problem at the moment so it is up to the naval forces to try and react as quickly as possible.