Piracy on the high seas of the 21st century requires 21st century solutions. As part of the on-going effort to curb attacks on shipping, the United States Navy will use a UAV helicopter to test a new sensor system in the waters off California during the summer of 2012. This new 3D sensor package in combination with new computer algorithms will allow the Navy to more accurately identify pirate vessels hiding among innocent shipping on the sea lanes with much greater speed and much less manpower.

The modern piracy problem

When most people hear the word “pirate” they either imagine someone illegally selling video downloads or a long-gone era of sailing ships, cutlasses and people in big hats saying “shiver me timbers.” But in the past twenty years, piracy has become a major problem for the world’s maritime nations with hundreds of lives and billions of dollars worth of ships and cargo endangered. Pirates have attacked ships off the coast of West Africa, in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and as far east as the Java Sea and the Philippines. According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau, in the first quarter of 2012 alone, there were 87 attacks worldwide with nine hijackings and 92 people taken hostage. The worst area is off the coast of Somalia where pirates in small craft operating from mother ships constantly harass shipping - currently 13 vessels and 197 hostages are being held.

Needles in a haystack

Fighting this menace with all the technology and firepower of modern navies against tiny rubber boats and small arms seems simple in the abstract. After all, the Royal Navy put an end to piracy in the 19th century with ships that, by today’s standards, were blind and armed with popguns. However, the navies of today are tiny in terms of ship numbers compared to those of yesterday, and politics have made the rules of engagement so strict that the aggressive tactics once used are (for good reasons) now impossible. Also, speed boats with outboard motors operating from seemingly innocent fishing boats have allowed the pirates to operate hundreds, if not thousands of miles from their bases. What all this adds up to is that modern naval commanders have trouble bringing their formidable firepower to bear because the job is like looking for a few needles among a lot more very similar needles in an extremely large and damp haystack, with the clock running out.

UAVs, with their ability to remain on station far longer than manned aircraft at much lower risk, helps to reduce the difficulties of pirate hunting, but in many ways using unmanned aircraft just shifts the problem off naval personnel on the scene and on to those at a shore base thousands of miles away. Certainly unmanned aerial vehicles can extend a warship’s search radius by hundreds of miles but this expanded capacity comes at a price. A UAV on patrol streams back huge amounts of data every second and much of it is of relatively poor quality. The resolution of its sensors is limited and the data is collected under a very wide variety of sea conditions. Worse, the operators have to deal with hundreds, if not thousands of vessels that look very similar to one another. With so much information of such poor quality, the task of analyzing the data is time consuming, labor intensive and expensive.

Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker (MMSS)

The solution being investigated by the US Navy is based around the use of the Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker (MMSS). The system consists of a BRIT STAR II turret developed by NAWCWD, Raytheon, FLIR Systems, BAE Systems and Utah State University installed in a Northrop Grumman RQ-8A Fire Scout UAV helicopter. The Fire Scout is a 600 lb (272 kg) UAV helicopter with an operating range of 110 nm (200 km), a top speed of 110 knots (200 km/h) and is a favorite of the U.S. armed forces with hundreds of flight hours clocked in anti-drug missions in the Pacific, as well as in missions over Libya and Afghanistan. The MMSS provides the Fire Scout with a mix of high-definition cameras, mid-wave infrared sensors and laser-radar (LADAR). This represents a significant step forward because it provides the pirate hunters with high-resolution 3D imagery of suspected vessels. The MMSS also takes this a step further by matching this enhanced information stream against an extensive database of ship schematics.

“Infrared and visible cameras produce 2D pictures, and objects in them can be difficult to automatically identify," says Dean Cook, principal investigator for the MMSS program at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. "With LADAR data, each pixel corresponds to a 3D point in space, so the automatic target recognition algorithm can calculate the dimensions of an object and compare them to those in a database.”

Given the tendency of pirates to hide within congested waters, this ability to scan and quickly identify suspects should make the pirates’ lives a bit more difficult. The MMSS has already completed successful tests identifying ships from shore and the summer 2012 tests will determine how effective the system is at sea. However, whether these tests will occur on time or if they will use the Fire Scout as the test platform is open to question because the Pentagon has grounded the Fire Scout fleet after a series of mishaps, culminating in the crash of a Fire Scout in Afghanistan on April 6, 2012. Since no further information on the grounding is available, exactly what the impact on the tests will be is unknown at this point.

Source: Office of Naval Research.