May 25, 2011 -- The U.S. Navy has developed a new weapon in the war against pirates, a sophisticated computer model that combines weather, ocean currents, shipping routes and classified intelligence data to predict where modern-day buccaneers may strike next.
Developers are hoping this mathematical analysis of pirate behavior will give naval commanders a leg up on high-seas criminals whose attacks are getting bolder and more frequent.
"You need three pieces of information for an attack to happen," said James Hansen, lead scientist at the probabilistic prediction research office at the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif.
"You need pirates in the area, you need to have vulnerable shipping, and meteorological conditions conducive for an attack. We have a model that takes into account everything we've learned from observations, past incidents and interrogation, along with oceanographic and meteorological data."
Naval researchers update the anti-pirate program every 12 hours with new data about winds, wave heights and undersea currents -- all factors that affect the pirates' ability to operate small skiffs to attack commercial ships. The model, known as the Piracy Attack Risk Surface (PARS), also uses classified reports about pirate whereabouts from captured sailors or unmanned drone aircraft patrolling the skies.
The result is a color-coded map that divides the ocean into zones of probability of pirate strikes, much like NOAA's hurricane forecast.
"We run thousands and thousands of scenarios to come up with most likely path the pirate are taking," said William Lingsch, a naval oceanographer at the Naval Meteorology and Oceanographic Command who oversees the model, which has been in beta testing by U.S. naval forces for the past two months.
The new computer model is the latest bit of technological wizardy aimed at stopping pirates. Earlier this month, the Pentagon rolled out an online war game that uses crowdsourcing to come up with creative solutions to scenarios involving pirates, hostages and naval ships.
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Decisions on what to do are voted on by other users, and the results are passed on to naval researchers who say it could help in real-world encounters.
The Navy has also been developing a remote-controlled, high-speed robot patrol boat called the Predator, while military contractors are selling high-powered lasers, sound weapons and slippery anti-tracking goo to deter pirate boardings.
U.S. warships currently patrol the seas off Somalia and the Persian Gulf as part of Combined Task Force (CTF) 150, a multinational force that includes forces from NATO, the European Union, China and India. Despite the naval presence, commercial shipping companies say pirate attacks are getting worse.
"There are more pirates and they are navigating greater distances from shore," said Erik Nielsen, director of container operations for the Copenhagen-based Maersk Line. Nielsen oversees his firm's 550 ships, which made more than 2,000 passages through high-risk sea lanes last year.
Nielsen said Maersk is now being forced to sail bigger, less efficient ships that are harder to board, running them at higher speeds, and taking detours around known pirate hotspots. Those measures cost Maersk $100 million last year in added fuel and crew costs, and the firm expects that figure to top $200 million this year.
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"There needs to be a much bigger awareness and a clear leadership role on piracy," Nielsen told Discovery News from Copenhagen. "There are naval ships and still there are more attacks, and it's escalating. So, not enough is being done.
High-seas hijackings jumped from 46 in 2008 to 62 in 2010, Nielsen said, and at least seven sailors have lost their lives this year in 18 hijackings this year.
Nielsen and other shippers want access to the Navy's new anti-piracy computer model, but Navy officials say they can't yet release it because of the risk that pirates could use it to adapt their tactics.
"Once it's public, then you have a game theory problem," said Hansen. "The very existence of the dissemination of information will change the behavior of the players you are trying to simulate."
One piracy expert says new technology like PARS may repel pirates in the short-term, but the only solution is dealing with the failed state where they make their home.
"It's a political and economic problem," said Martin Murphy, a visiting fellow at King's College in London and author of "Somalia, The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa." "Technology is only ever going to be an aid, not a magic bullet."
With more pressing conflicts around the world, Murphy says that the political will to deal with the chaos in Somalia doesn't currently exist. That lack of interest in Somalia and modern-day piracy may change -- at least for movie-goers. Columbia Pictures just purchased the rights to a film about Richard Phillips, the Maersk Alabama captain who fought off Somali pirates in 2009. Hollywood hero Tom Hanks has been enlisted to play Phillips; Kevin Spacey will produce.