Pirate-fighting robot aims to make the seas a safer place

Posted by Emma Woollacott

This time two weeks ago, I was sitting in a rather delightful beach bar on the south coast of Sri Lanka with a bunch of chaps who were very generous with the beers.

Turned out they were - not to put too fine a point on it - mercenaries, ex-soldiers paid by private companies to escort ships across to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

While piracy hits the headlines whenever a couple of dumb tourists get themselves captured, it's a much bigger problem than is usually realized. Pirates these days have a bit more in their armoury than cutlasses - grenade launchers, for example - and there's an awful lot of them about.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there were a record 142 attacks worldwide in the first three months of this year. 18 vessels were hijacked, 344 crew members were taken hostage, and six were kidnapped. A further 45 vessels were boarded, and 45 more reported being fired upon.

Large tankers carrying oil and other flammable chemicals are particularly vulnerable to firearm attack, says the IMB - and my new friends at the Lucky Tuna were working on one of the most dangerous stretches of ocean.

"Three big tankers of over 100,000 tonnes deadweight have been hijacked off the Horn of Africa this year," says Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of IMB. "Of a total of 97 vessels attacked in the region, 37 were tankers and of these, 20 had a deadweight of more than 100,000 tonnes."

But ReconRobotics has developed a new robot that's designed to give the guys a helping hand. It's created a beer-can sized robot that can be fired from a cannon, can stick to a ship magnetically and then climb up onto the deck.

Once there, it releases a probe that can be guided remotely around to see what's going on via an infrared camera, looking for pirates and any hostages.

The device is based on the company's Throwbot, which is already being used by US Navy Seals, and has been developed in conjunction with Navy labs. There's a video of it in action, here.

My pirate-fighting chums are all somewhere in the Indian Ocean at the moment, so I can't ask them what they think of the new device. But it strikes me that if the pirates can get hold of grenade-launchers, they might be able to get hold of one of these - and put it to profitable use themselves.