Development is underway on a Web-based application that will help U.S. sailors detect pirate ships, illegal fishing vessels, drug smugglers, arms traffickers and other bad guys in the ocean.
The application will combine automated vessel detection with behavioral analysis, said John Stastny, an engineer with the International Collaborative Development for Enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness, or ICODE MDA, which is helping to design it for the U.S. Navy. Doing this will allow sailors to identify and avoid ships engaging in suspicious at-sea maneuvers, which could signal the presence of pirates.
So, what exactly constitutes pirate behavior? That’s yet to be determined.
Stastny said the goal is to look at data to identify what kind of behavior is typical for a regular ship versus a pirate ship.
“That can help us develop models for what pirates are likely to do,” he explained.
The program will operate like iGoogle, an online dashboard that accommodates a user’s preferences and displays personalized data for local weather, email and news. But for this dashboard, the menu will focus on locating pirates.
“You’re going to have a base map that will show anomalies that are related to the piracy problem and a widget that shows which are high-risk vessels or high-risk areas for piracy today,” Stastny said.
These widgets, or Web-based applications, will be designed and built collaboratively with representatives from the Navy and researchers in Chile.
Because processing all of this data uses huge amounts of bandwidth, the program is designed to be used at onshore operations centers, Stastny said. But sailors at sea will still be involved and could still depend on it for critical information.
“What’s sent to the ships should be actionable intelligence only — positions and activities of pirates, for example,” he said.
In this way, afloat sailors will benefit from improved awareness of what is going on around them without having to deal with the realities of low bandwidth at sea.
The goal of detecting ships is to allow sailors to avoid a potentially hazardous encounter rather than always being on defense, said Jim Fallin, director of public affairs at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.
The app will be designed in an open-source format, meaning anyone can access the data, including civilians. The idea is to encourage information-sharing for better situational awareness with the U.S. and coalition navies.
Development of the program will begin in December and a prototype is expected by the end of 2013, Stastny said. The Defense Department awarded $1 million over two years for development of the widgets and framework.
This year there have been 121 attacks and 13 hijackings worldwide as of April 23, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre. Currently, 12 vessels and 173 hostages are being held by Somali pirates. While the coast of Somalia is one of the worst areas for piracy attacks, other areas include Nigeria, Indonesia and the coast of South America.
Ultimately, Stastny said a $1 million investment in this project is not a high cost when compared to the damage done by pirates each year.
“What value do we place on keeping our sailors safer and shipping vessels safer through shared information?” Stastny asked. “When you consider the demonstrative propensity of pirates to take hostages and take large sums of money, I don’t agree it’s a high cost. It’s ... the right investment.”