Wednesday, June 4, 2014

June 4 2014: Modern piracy and other threats to big ships from small boats containing bad people—and what to do about them. Introducing WatchStander, which tracks and deters small boats autonomously. Kind of creepy—but better than walking the plank.

“There comes a time in a man's life when he hears the call of the sea. If the man has a brain in his head, he will hang up the phone immediately.”

Dave Barry

The 'head' of the WatchStander system, incorporating a video camera and a 12 million candl...

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

THE IMPORTANCE OF A BASE OF KNOWLEDGE. I spend a couple of hours every day—and more at weekends—keeping myself relatively well informed. You can debate whether that time could be better spent—but I have found that if I know what’s going on in the areas that interest me, I’ll write with much greater ease. I don’t have to stop and research. I’ll just know—or know where to look—so write with greater fluidity. When I’m writing, I don’t like to stop writing to do research. I prefer to have that set up in advance. Then I like to get into the zone—which I can now do almost immediately (all it takes is decades of practice) —and just write.

MASTURBATION VERSUS REAL SEX. Is this approach right for all writers? Probably not—it’s a great deal of work. All I can say is that I’m comfortable with it—even though I know that most of the data I collect, I will never use. But, I never forget that the primary task of a writer is to do just that—to write. Research is more like masturbation. Enjoyable enough—but no substitute for the real thing.

Let me re-phrase—I won’t use it in a manner that will make you consciously aware of it. But, it will give me confidence and lend authority to my writing to really know what is possible. 

PIRACY. I have given a great deal of thought to incorporating piracy into one of my books. I read a great deal about piracy in my early reading days—but never thought it would endure into the 21st century. The truth is, of course, that it never went away. In fact, it has never been more common.

RADAR. Today’s ships all have radar, of course, but though that is excellent for spotting other ships, land, and—where the military are concerned—aircraft (including incoming missiles) it is not so good at spotting small   boats, and particularly small boats with hostile intent. Besides, even if you do see them, how do you know they are hostile?

YOU TOO CAN BE A TERRORIST. Who uses such small boats? Today’s pirates—and hostile nations such as Iran—and really any terrorist with  a nautical cast of mind. You don’t need to be a nation to acquire small craft. In fact, you can steal the damn things if necessary. Given the right mental attitude, terrorism doesn’t have to be a high overhead business.

SUCH CRAFT ARE DANGEROUS. If appropriately configured, such small boats are relatively inexpensive, fast, easy to conceal in the swell of a sea, very hard to spot—especially in darkness and adverse weather—and are potentially quite lethal (especially if laden with explosives). In short, they are a very real threat—even quite far out to sea. A ship can be hundreds of miles off the nearest coast—and still be vulnerable.

BIGGER SHIPS, SMALLER CREWS. Parallel with this, cost factors are making merchant ships every bigger and crews ever smaller. This is possible because technology is evolving at a truly phenomenal rate. However, it also means that fewer and fewer crew are available to keep watch.

Naval ships are not necessarily getting larger—that depends upon the  type—but costs are driving crew sizes ever smaller so they also have severe limitations on the numbers available to stand watch.

The security implications of these developments are self evident. The situation is actually worse than it seems because ships have to be guarded 24/7 and crews need rest.

AUTONYMOUS AND AUTOMATED. WatchStander is, in effect, an autonomous solution to the small boat threat. It 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 system can, of course, be slaved to a more lethal deterrent.

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.

THE MARK I EYEBALL. All of this adds up to an impressive set of capabilities. The one weakness, as I see it, is that WatchStander cannot look at a boat and determine that the craft is likely to be hostile because of the look of the crew and the fact they are armed. Sometimes, there is no substitute for what the British call “the Mark I Eyeball.”



No comments:

Post a Comment