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BAE Systems develops non-lethal laser to combat pirates


January 13, 2011

The non-lethal laser disorients pirates without any permanent damage

The non-lethal laser disorients pirates without any permanent damage

Despite the commonly held view – among schoolboys anyway – of pirates as a bunch of peg-legged, eye-patch wearing scurvy dogs from the 1700’s (or thereabouts), maritime piracy continues to be a serious problem – and it’s on the rise. To combat this scourge of the seas BAE Systems has developed a non-lethal laser designed to act as a deterrent against pirate attacks on commercial vessels, such as oil tankers and container ships.

According to the International Chamber Of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau, 430 pirate attacks were reported worldwide in 2010, up from 406 in 2009. Already in the first 11 days of 2011, 15 attacks have been reported, including two hijackings and 41 people taken hostage. With pirates increasing their range of operations and their capabilities, BAE Systems conducted a study of pirate’s behavior and a company-wide capability survey to examine if they had anything that could help combat the growing piracy threat.

The researchers decided that the concept of a non-lethal laser, which would leave only temporary effects, to distract and deter potential attackers from a distance was the best approach, and conducted a number of experiments to assess the feasibility of the concept. Leveraging the capabilities of BAE’s Optics and Laser Technology Department, the research team has successfully demonstrated a suitable laser at the Pershore Trials Range in Worchester over a variety of distances and in a variety of conditions.

The laser beam demonstrated is capable of providing a visual warning to pirates at distances of over 2 km (1.24 miles), while at lesser distances it can sufficiently disorientate attackers so that they are unable to target their weapons effectively, similar to the Dazer Laser.

“The effect is similar to when a fighter pilot attacks from the direction of the sun. The glare from the laser is intense enough to make it impossible to aim weapons like AK47s or RPGs, but doesn’t have a permanent effect,” said Roy Evans, BAE Systems capability technology lead for laser photonic systems.

For the tests the researchers developed a bespoke Neodymium Yttrium Aluminium Garnet (Nd:YAG) laser, which they say is an effective deterrent at relatively low power levels. By utilizing targeting systems and changing beam patterns, the distraction effect can be made more pronounced and be used against multiple targets.

“We successfully showed that the laser works not just during the night, but also in full daylight. But, there are many more requirements to meet before placing a non-lethal laser weapon on commercial ships,” Evans added.

BAE says that when it is fitted on commercial ships, the laser distraction system could use its own targeting capability or integrate with existing ship radar and sensor systems to control the direction and power of the beam, allowing it to work semi-autonomously. It would also include security features to ensure that, if the pirates did manage to get aboard, they wouldn’t be able to use the laser.

“Laser distraction is part of a wider program of anti-piracy technologies being developed by BAE Systems, including radar systems, which utilizes 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,” said Bryan Hore, BAE Systems business development manager and the lead for the anti-piracy program.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Um its spelt Lasarrrrrrrrrr... LOL.. Sorry you brought up pirates, how was I to resist?

Michael Mantion

LOL what if they use welding masks?

Chio Choi

why not let it have permanent damage? They are, after all pirates, fry their eyes forever, must be why I have a 1000mW 532 nm laser inside my house for intruders, and well a 9mm solution, and a .380acp solution, umm and flying ashtray .41 action express solution.. and yes, these stay inside my home, I don\'t go looking for trouble kike some morons. Best, Bill

Bill Bennett

one typical attribute of lasers like this is they work at a fairly well-defined and specific frequency/wavelength.

So the pirates will just wear glasses that filter the light out.

Or put their hand up to shield their eyes from the light point source, whilst still being able to see the ship they are shooting at.

Sounds like a pretty lame answer to me... what\'s wrong with an exocet?


I see eye patches are in again :) not harmful ... well , maybe - maybe not . three blinded pirates sail across the sea - only to starve to death .

Károly Hőss

I\'d think along the lines of removing their vessel so they have no option but to swim if they\'re lookin for humane options

Mark Penver

What if the pirates use some kind of shields, that will allow them to still peddle towards the boat, but be \"shielded\" from the laser?

I\'m not too sure they have thought this through...

Sang N.

Wouldn\'t it just be cheaper and more effective to give the merchants some guns?

@Michael Mantion Exactly! I was thinking the same thing. Well, I was thinking some sunglasses, but similar :P

Raymond Swift

Sorry, but does \'no lasting effects\' REALLY exclude damage to the retina? I was struck my laser light (experimenter\'s kit) once for only an instant at school and my vision went from 20/20 to 20/400.

There IS a need for protection for these shippers but has anyone considered just WHY they started pirating off the east Afrika coast? How about all those corporate factory fishing vessels cutting the nets of the locals and drag lining the bottom for the fish the locals depend upon? EU fishing rules require special nets which exclude some fish - allowing them to grow - harvesting only the adults. Reports tell the nets in-use off Afrika make a \'clean sweep\' of ALL fish in their way.

Same thing occurred years ago in the North Atlantic and the Navies of NATO powers came to blows over it. Anyone remember the \'Cod Wars\' between Canada, Britain, Spain and Iceland?


Let\'s just hope them pirates don\'t use their brains and bring along a mirror! LOL!

Facebook User

Would have thought a decent size large caliber machine gun would be just as effective and probably cheaper and a lot less technical.

Christion Baker

Interesting......B.E. Meyers (a US of A company) has been producing Laser Visual Disrupters (trade name: Glare Mout) for the military for at least 2 years now, so BAE is behind the 8-ball here......


The problem with a non-lethal weapon such as this is that it is just a deterrent. Pirates will just sail away, and attack someone else. Every vessel will have to have one. I should think it would be rather too expensive for some.....private yachts for instance. To be effective it must be made lethal, first to clear the oceans, then to use on the low life who attack ambulance and fire services. Ian Colley.


Why do we wish to treat pirates humanely??? So that they may raid again? The Russian method of sinking them is far more effective and cheaper. Plus you guarantee they will never attack another vessel.


Then the sailors could download an app to their android phone and make a nice laser show at night.


This is a really lame method of dealing with these maniacs. A surface to surface missile would be much better. I have never understood why the shipping companies don\'t take steps to defend themselves better. Considering what\'s at stake if they are attacked, it would seem to justify significant expense.


Great to most who replied! I was expecting comments about how unfair this treatment would be to the poor pirates. Damn right sink their vessels, blow them out of the sea. We all know they are not planning to give anyone on board the target ship a break. I say any ship or ship\'s mate, or officer who isn\'t prepared for a pirate is a fool. Rocket launchers, 50 cal machine guns and grenade launchers, then unload on these low life\'s until there are no more of their boats to be seen. JaMarty


Larry makes a point that anyone who is wise would appreciate. I live in a nation where foreigners strip our coasts of fish and due to the corruption that allows them to continue our fishermen are facing dwindling fishstocks. if they turn to piracy to survive why are they the ones to be destroyed? Yes piracy is an act that is barbaric but when developed peoples destroy the livlihoods of the people of the developing world do they expect to be forgiven? Do they believe that their actions are without consequence. As far as the non lethal lasers go, how do they spot tiny boats invisible to radar in the open ocean? Sound focusing weapons would be more useful and have a much more useful effect even at close quarters.

Chris D

Don\'t worry boys it just a targeting system - the ordinance is right behind...wait for it...kapow! Way to go BAE!

See, the way to train these little pukes is to let them know, by example, that if they have been targeted, they have 20 seconds to change course 180 degrees or be blown out of the water. I estimate that, after the first half dozen have been vaporized, all of their kind will know to spin and run at the mere possibility that they have been locked onto. And as a final deterrent, an electrified ladder and rails should do the trick while keeping the zincs fresh. Basic science.

You have to meet them at their level - end of story.


What a stupid dumb ideal that waste of money for a not working piece of junk tech. Junk retool the ships with high speed long distance gun, shoot whatever come close to the ship after warned. One death pirate could help discourage other to pursuit such hopeless career for something more productive.


I guess if pirates were in your home, we should use guns and tactical missiles as well? These lasers would come in handy if the pirates held hostages or had valuable/lethal cargo on board.

There\'s also the possibility of targeting the wrong ships and hostile takeovers as mentioned. More guns in the hands of pirates will only make them happier. How many merchantmen are trained fighters or can handle firearms anyway? They might as well just hand over conventional to the pirates if they brought any.

Shaun Goh

C. M. Dopwell, Let\'s look at how \"anyone who is wise\" would view this criminal activity:

If the fishing fleets [and I agree that they should be dealt with], are the reason for the actions of pirates, why are they attacking tankers, private yachts etc. and not fishing vessels?

Why haven\'t the trawlermen of Great Britain who have been robbed of their livelihoods turned to this crime?

\"how do they spot tiny boats invisible to radar in the open ocean?\"....Easily...look over the bulwarks at the ones containing millionaire criminals who are aiming their high powered weapons at intended victims and boarding their ships....\'simples!\' [For a wise person]. Ian Colley.


Lets see, I\\'m a pirate; me and my small band of cut-throats are going to take over a large tanker and hold everybody for ransom. As my band of pirates approach a bright light comes at me. Wow. I order my crew of say fifteen people to open fire with our AK 47 at full auto. lights go out and victim ship is ours. Stupid idea.

S Michael

This not just a \'bright light\'. This is laser light, and even the weakest laser can dazzle your retina instantly. If you are seeing it well enough to aim at it, you have already been virtually blinded - it is coherent, so it doesn\'t put out a \'glare\' that can be seen from the side. It\'s one of the reasons those annoying kids are so hard to spot in a movie theater.

Personally I don\'t understand why there isn\'t some kind of Maritime shipboard multi-national military one can have assigned to their vessel for security in dangerous waters. A force with the authority to kill and repel unauthorized boarders.

Timothy Neill

I\'m with the more permanent solution, fit all large ships with a 50mm cannon fore and aft and wipe the scumbags out. They are pirates, the garbage of the seas, they think nothing of killing people they kidnap, so they don\'t qualify for \'human\' status...

Mr T

I wonder how long till we see these deployed by the Japanese whaling fleet...! then by the pirates themselves, once you let the genie outa that bottle...

Kym Flannery

Why the emphasis on non-lethal? Mount some vulcans with night sights and let em have it!

Asoka Indrasoma

The pirates are doing this for a reason. Don\'t hate them, or kill them, help them. They are trying to get money to survive.

Facebook User

The Russians, Koreans and Malaysians seem to on the right path with their commandos...

Asoka Indrasoma

Laser:"light amplification (by) stimulated emission of radiation"

(the A is the second word, remember this is not Lidar that has the 'a' at the end... Stands for: Light Detection and ranging)

MMantion you can still do the errrr thing with that, just sounds a little less threatening... Others (RSwift) who read funny posts.... (have a laugh but don't agree if its wrong...)

It doesn't make it funnier being badly mistaken...

Again, I agree that high tech pirates will have their welding glasses handy, or better still use filtered video ranging and aiming systems....

But the People these are to be used against are not high tech generally, and are not willing to attack a well prepared target, they feed off the soft underbelly...

Probably this system would be better reserved for the forces which are coming to rescue the hostages to disorient the bad guys..

What happens if you are on the open sea in your scow fishing, and a tanker / container ship sailing by "autonomously" "thinks" you are a threat, and blinds you with "Non lethal" "No Permanently debilitating" laser light, you will still be seriously 'pissed' if you fall overboard due to their negligence, and survive....

Probably we will get to the point like in the 1800's where merchant ships were seriously armed... Nowadays all it takes is a small missile battery on the aft deck, with radar ranging (or Lidar, fight fire with fire, Light with Light..)

Better Near field radar for detecting the boats before a grappling hook goes over your rail would be an advantage...


Hmm I call bullshit on this - all they have to do is block the laser light, with cheap lazer goggles or hold some card board in front of their faces and sail up the wake of the ship - i.e. look to the side and follow the smooth water with the frothy edges....

Hmmmm so much for low tech meets high tech

Mr Stiffy

Its interesting how once again in history pesents are at the fore front of experimental weaponry to be tested on them


The whole "lasers at sea is total bull@hit". Anybody with a first grade education knows that you MUST have clean and residue free optics in order to transmit high power laser pulses. Seaspray, seagull crap, etc will always be present distorting the beam and possible blowing up the whole assembly.

Also if I was a pirate, I would invest in some laser proof goggles/eye protection.

20mm CIWS or very small fire and forget type missiles like the US Army's Javelin would be a heck of a lot more reliable. As small scaled down version of the Harpoon would also work too.

K.I.S.S.- Keep It Simple Stupid !


One more thing to consider.... Pirate attacks aren't made using one skiff. Multiple skiffs using diversionary tactics and all armed to the teeth. Blinding one skiff, sound focusing measures, etc., will do nothing to help the ship being attacked. Carrying armed guards: several times vessels have to hang around waiting for cargo availability for days on end. On the West coast of Africa this can mean a month or more of being in, or close to pirate-filled waters. Having armed guards onboard for that long is not feasible for several reasons. The most important one being none of the countries permit arms onboard while in their territorial waters.

Sailing Chief
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