Monday, December 24, 2007
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have expressed interest in the 30-ft.-long Protector, which comes mounted with a machine gun and could be retrofitted for commercial use. Robots versus pirates -- it's not as stupid, or unlikely, as it sounds. Piracy has exploded in the waters near Somalia, where this past week United States warships have fired on two pirate skiffs, and are currently in pursuit of a hijacked Japanese-owned vessel. At least four other ships in the region remain under pirate control, and the problem appears to be going global: The International Maritime Bureau is tracking a 14-percent increase in worldwide pirate attacks this year. And although modern-day pirates enjoy collecting their fare share of booty -- they have a soft spot for communications gear -- they're just as likely to ransom an entire ship. In one particularly sobering case, hijackers killed one crew member of a Taiwan-owned vessel each month until their demands were met. For years now, law enforcement agencies across the high seas have proposed robotic boats, or unmanned surface vessels (USVs), as a way to help deal with 21st-Century techno Black Beards. The Navy has tested at least two small, armed USV demonstrators designed to patrol harbors and defend vessels. And both the Navy and the Coast Guard have expressed interest in the Protector, a 30-ft.-long USV built by BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Israeli defense firm RAFAEL.The Protector, which comes mounted with a 7.62mm machine gun, wasn't originally intended for anti-piracy operations. But according to BAE Systems spokesperson Stephanie Moncada, the robot could easily fill that role. "Down the line, it could potentially be modified for commercial use as well," she says. Instead of being deployed by a warship to intercept and possibly fire on an incoming vessel, a non-lethal variant of the Protector could be used to simply investigate a potential threat. A favorite tactic of modern-day pirates is to put out a distress call, then ambush any ships that respond. The unmanned Protector could be remote-operated from around 10 miles away, with enough on-board sensors, speakers and microphones to make contact with a vessel before it's too late. "Even without the machine gun, it could alert the crew, give them some time to escape," Moncada says. The 55-mph Interceptor could become the long-range patrol boat of the future, while the jetski-size Sentry (inset) could help prevent a terrorist plot such as Al Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole in December 2000. This past summer, Florida-based Marine Robotic Vessels International (MRVI) unveiled a USV that emphasizes reconnaissance over firepower. The 21-ft.-long Interceptor can travel at up to 55 mph, and is designed to be piloted both remotely and autonomously.For a patrol boat, autonomous control would be a huge advantage, allowing it to traverse huge stretches of open sea, instead of having to remain within radio range of a given vessel. While the Interceptor could be fitted with a water cannon or other non-lethal offensive system, its primary mission is to serve as a sentry. According to MRVI President Dan Murphy, the Interceptor is available now. But the USV market is just getting started: Two months ago, British defense firm Qinetiq debuted its own robotic vessel, the jetski-size Sentry. Among its potential duties is intruder investigation, which could include scouting out unidentified boats, along the lines of the raft that detonated alongside the USS Cole in Yemen, as well as offering a first look at a possible pirate-controlled vessel. The Sentry, however, can only operate for up to six hours at a time, severely limiting its ability to operate at sea. Although the Protector is currently deployed by the Israeli and Singaporean Navies, the U.S. Navy has yet to field a full-production USV, much less a pirate-hunting one. But if piracy continues to escalate around the world, it may only a matter of time before the private sector gets fed up and buys a few unmanned boats to act as scouts. After all, one of the best things a robot can do is get blown to pieces ... so you don't have to.