A group of British companies have blended commercial-off-the-shelf electronics to help governments and navies ward off pirate attacks.
Shown at the Defence Geospatial Intelligence 2012 conference in London on Tuesday, the yet to be named system helps trainees ashore or afloat learn to spot behavior indicating that a ship is under attack or has been captured by pirates. The system can help real-world operators as well.
Led by geospatial information system specialist Esri UK, the group showed off a demonstration that incorporated a mix of real and simulated data along the Somali coast and a swath of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
Esri UK’s collaborators include exactEarth, which owns a growing constellation of satellites that provide location-based information on vessels via their automatic identification system (AIS); Exelis Visual Information Solutions, which uses image processing software to identify different sizes of vessels from satellite or airborne imagery; and IHS, which provides data on several fronts, including ship movements and recognition.
The new system integrates these multiple sources of data and intelligence into a location-based common operational picture. A similar, land-based system has been used in Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province for some time.
Simulated data can be fed into the system to create a picture over several million square miles of ocean, including positions of merchant vessels and warships, locations of latest known pirate attacks, and even the sea state. When wave heights reach a certain point, the number of attacks drops sharply because pirates are unable to get alongside a merchant vessel to board.
Integrating these different data points allows government or naval personnel to learn to identify factors that indicate a vessel may be heading into an area of particularly high risk or even be under attack. For example, if a tanker’s track deviates from its anticipated position or heading, and its AIS, which broadcasts the ship’s identity via satellite, is suddenly switched off, there is a strong likelihood the vessel has been attacked and naval or air assets should intercept.
Trainees can then learn to use satellite imagery to detect vessels of interest within a certain radius of the victim vessel’s last known position, classify them by size, and cross-reference the satellite imagery with pictures of the missing vessel to check its identity.
“Almost all data has a location and time, so it can be plotted geographically,” explained Esri UK director Nick Rigby. “By bringing it together in a visual context, patterns and relationships can be seen, which might not be immediately apparent from analyzing each intelligence source in isolation.”
In 2011, 439 incidents of attacks from modern-day pirates were reported. Some 3,000 pirates operate up to 1,300 nautical miles from the lawless Somali coast, and an estimated $238 million in ransom payments for captured vessels and crews is believed to have been made in 2010.