WatchStander is made to keep the pirates at bay


June 2, 2014

The "head" of the WatchStander system, incorporating a video camera and a 12 million candlepower spotlight

The "head" of the WatchStander system, incorporating a video camera and a 12 million candlepower spotlight

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Today's ships are equipped with radar systems that let them identify other ships from a distance, and while that works well enough for collision avoidance, those systems aren't the greatest at detecting small watercraft ... such as the low-slung skiffs often used by pirates. That's where WatchStander comes in. It's a radar system that's designed to pick out such boats, and then deter their crews before they can attack.

WatchStander uses shorter radio wavelengths than a ship's standard radar system, which is what allows it to detect smaller watercraft that are up to 2 miles (3.2 km) away. Using artificial intelligence software developed at Penn State University's Applied Research Laboratory, it then tracks those boats and watches to see if any of them exhibit "antagonistic behavior" – this could include approaching the ship at high speed, on an intercept course.

If any of them do so, the ship's crew will be alerted via visual and audible alarms, plus WatchStander's high-intensity spotlight will be shone at that boat. The light serves to both disorient the possible pirates, and to let them know that they've been spotted, and have therefore lost the element of surprise.

The view from WatchStander's camera, along with a radar image of suspicious vessels being tracked

Should the vessel continue to approach, the spotlight will go into a more disruptive strobing mode. If things progress further, other possible non-lethal countermeasures that could be used include sonic and laser deterrents, or pepper spray projectiles. The integrated video system also records the entire encounter, for future reference.

The system is autonomous, with the ship's WatchStander unit(s) automatically panning and tilting to stay trained on the suspect vessels. This means that the ship's crew can take refuge if wanted. They can override the system if it becomes clear to them that a boat doesn't pose a threat, or they can likewise declare a vessel to be a threat, if they realize it is one before the system does.

Source: WatchStander via New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Saying "Hi we see you and recognize you as a threat so please go away so we can both have a nice day." is only a deterrent if you can totally ruin their day by say gunfire.


Really! Flash some lights, play a buzzer and as the ultimate a laser pointer? I can hear the pirates laughing from here.

Stick a self propelled grenade on that thing. Then you got something they will pay attention to.

Paul van Dinther

There are a variety of reasons why these ships' crews don't carry guns. High insurance premiums is one. The cost of training the crew how to use and maintain the weapons is another. There are also issues when carrying weapons into other countries. Also, starting an arms race between ships and pirates is not going to have a positive outcome.

Of course having an armed crew would certainly solve some of the problems, but the net result seems to be a negative one.

Non-lethal deterrents are the tools of a smarter and more civilized age.


Talk about industrial espionage ! I read several years ago that Indian Navy had developed a variation of radar that could skim the water and go around the curve of the earth to detect similar small objects far beyond the horizon !

What I fail to understand is reason for providing permanently fixed steel ladder on the outside of the ship in spite of knowing the threat of piracy in modern times. It is the same as providing unrestricted usb port access in high security environments ! Dumb in my opinion !


Using this as a guidance system, a ship be armed with multiple water cannons that can coordinate their streams to one point to swamp the boarding vessel and/or knock would be pirates off the ladders.


Test on merchent ships, OK crew to be armed. & add other devices to shake pirates IE sonic booms, etc & mount on USCG cutters alone near US waters.

Stephen Russell

part of the problem is the somali government doesn't do anything about it. The captains of these ships can't be reasonably asked to duke it out in a gun fight with pirates.

90% of Somali piracy occurs out of 2 well known ports and their leaders live in huge mansions but the government isn't willing to do anything about it and the other countries aren't willing to take military action against those ports.

Navies can't possibly patrol all the water so ships are continually placed in harms way.

The pirates themselves are aware of this so they do not harm crews as a matter of policy because doing it would provide the justification necessary for nations to take military action against them.

Putting an end to it is currently in the hands of the Somali government but pirates bring wealth to the country so they turn a blind eye to it (like Nigeria and 419 scammers). In both nations crime is the biggest industry. Somali bosses pull in ~$2mil/year and are basically celebrities.


@ Stradric How does making being a pirate dangerous have a bad end.


I truly don't understand WHY, we have to treat pirate murderers, torturers with "kid gloves"! Yes it is nice to know they are coming to get you, but what you really going to do against a determined military trained bunch of armed men on faster boats UNLESS you have firepower of some kind to deal with them.

Not saying merchant men should have to deal with it. It is why we pay for navies to protect our countries (trade), isn't it?


@ sk8dad I like the water canon idea, there is unlimited ammo, i think that a 4 inch cannon would do the trick. 1000-1500 gallons per minute, and there swimming or treading water, and if they make it back, there going to tell there palls about there encounter with a 4 inch water stream.

Jay Finke

@ Stradric How does making being a pirate dangerous have a bad end.


Stradric, your thinking is the very reason pirates are the problem they are today. They count on a "civilized" response (such as having a hose pointed at them) and know they can get away with it. Put a single well trained mercenary with, at least, a fifty caliber gun on each ship and piracy will quickly become a thing of the past and at much lower cost than the many millions in ransom paid to these guys. When they can't get within a mile of the ship without being shot at and only when they know there's a high likelihood they will die when attempting to take over a ship will they stop doing this.

And please an "arms race"???? How can a small boat bouncing all over the place in the waves hurt a 700 foot ship with small arms compared to the very steady platform a large ship gives a man with a fifty caliber gun. Good luck on the guys on the bouncy boat's ability to hit any person on the ship from hundreds of yards away but the gunner on the ship can easily take out every person on the small boat, or the boat itself. Just ask the three pirates who were shot by three snipers all at once from the back of a U.S. navy ship. Oh, you can't; they're dead.


@ maak If it was only that easy, most country's do not allow firearms in there ports. not even a hand gun. And I hear that foreign jails/prisons are not much fun. and that's your destination if they find a weapon on your boat. If they could use guns they would,I'm pretty sure. and all you would need is a 22 and how fun would that be.

Jay Finke
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