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Non-lethal laser defends against pirate attacks

BAE Systems has demonstrated a prototype laser for use by commercial ships to defend against pirate attacks, without causing lasting effects to the assailants.

The laser provides a visual warning to pirates at distances of 2km and beyond and disorientates them at close range, so that weapons cannot be targeted effectively.

Piracy worldwide is on the rise according to reports from the International Maritime Bureau, with 430 attacks worldwide reported last year, up from 406 in 2009. As pirates increase their range and capabilities, commercial shipping agents are looking for ways of preventing attacks whilst avoiding armed guards on their ships.

Bryan Hore, BAE Systems business development manager and the lead for programme, said: ‘The whole concept of the anti-piracy campaign that BAE sytems are undertaking is how we might be able to take military technology and employ it in a commercial environment.

‘That means first of all simplifying the technology, because of the type of people that would be operating it, but also making it a cost effective.’

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

The laser was trialled during night and day in varying weather conditions at the Pershore Trials Range in Worcester. Cameras were placed at the target location to demonstrate the level of beam intensity and divergence produced by the test runs.

When fitted on commercial ships the laser distraction system could utilise its own targeting capability or integrate with existing ship radar and sensor systems to control the direction and power of the beam. It could therefore work semi-autonomously and would also include security features to ensure it could not be used by pirates if they boarded the ship.

While the trials have proved successful Hore admitted there are there are several hurdles to overcome.

‘Our next step is to look at things like multiple targets, the remote use of the system and further safety aspects. We are also driven by the interests of the customer - we are taking what we’ve done out to interested parties and looking at what their specific requirements would be for this sort of capability,’ he said.

Readers' comments (8)

  • BAE announce their new laser well done. There are some hurdles to overcome, could one of them be that possibly China or India will sell the pirates lab glasses for protection????

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  • I find it strange that they feel the need to fit a security system to stop the pirates using the laser if they "board the vessel." they dont seem to have much faith in the effectiveness of their own system.

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  • The biggest deterrent this device will have is its cost.
    Trying to fight unscrupulous pirates armed with an assortment of weapons with a device that will not cause lasting effects to the assailants is not going to be much of a deterrent. I suspect many of the ships crews would rather have some proper weapons to fire back at the pirates. If however hi-tech is the way, what about a short range electromagnetic pulse weapon focused to a beam say 300m designed to knock out their electronics including their vessels engine management and navigation systems.

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  • This seems like a good idea on first reading but I'm ultimately left wondering how effective it would be. If I have 20 armed men to take an unarmed vessel what's to stop me deploying 5 men to fire on the vessel during the approach with the rest under cover. Then as those firing become dazzled I could transfer fresh men in to take their place. Also, how effective is this against welding glass? So long as I'm facing the right way and can see the source point of the laser to aim at then it doesn't really matter if I can't see the rest of the ship. Finally, if I was on a vessel under attack I'm not so sure that I would prefer weapons being fired erratically in my general direction rather than aimed. I can only presume that, if you will forgive, there's more to this than meets the eye.

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  • How a high pressure water jet with liquid air to pepper the incoming boats with ice ?
    Or 30000 psi air jet to blast unwanted guests?
    Or generate a lot of air bubbles underneath of the incoming boats? Boats float on water but not in air.

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  • Sounds a bit like an upgraded and polished version of the Channel Light from WWII. A high powered Carbon Arc light with a shutter in front of it. Blinds your opponent nicely. OK, it doesn't work well during the day, but I wonder how well this laser functions when your average pirate has some RayBan's on his face during the day.
    Could be a cost saving alternative. A nightvision camera coupled to a PC with image recognision doesn't cost the world. For the rest you'll need a motorized light support (searchlight pedestal with remote control) and a bunch of powerful LED floodlights with bundling lenses. Some electronics to turn them on and of in a fast interval and you're in dazzling business.

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  • A laser is a good idea, but make it so that it blinds and burns the enemy not just disorient him-her. The real deterrent is the generation of casualties that the other pirates can see, causing fear. How many of us would go up against a merchant ship if we know that we will be blind afterwards. These guys make millions, the deterrent has to be strong.

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  • 'make it so that it blinds and burns the enemy'

    This is banned by Protocol 4 of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons - which prohibits Laser Blinding Weapons.

    Laser Dazzling Weapons are permitted, however.

    A difficult issue however, as the difference between dazzling and blinding is just power density, which could be varied...

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