Steering with Artificial Intelligence to Combat Maritime Piracy

Goh Wai Pheng

General Manager, Satcom & Sensor Systems, ST Engineering

Maritime piracy today remains a complex challenge to international law, world trade and the safety and security of seafarers. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and other maritime safety advisories publish various counter-piracy guidelines and recommendation to help shipping companies protect their ships against the piracy menace. In reference to the guidelines, while it is essential to keep sharp look-outs or maintain a good radar watch when vessels transit high risk areas, approaching small skiffs can often be overlooked. The effectiveness of the IMO guidelines therefore relies greatly on the diligence of the crew in surveying the vast body of waters around them for threats.

Besides, the frailty of the human body can lead to lapses which are gleefully exploited by pirates to the detriment of the crew, sometimes with tragic consequences. It begs the uncomfortable question of whether the shipping industry is at the mercy of the pirates and robbers in the highs seas and what else, if any, can be done to improve the current situation. Seafarers who have encountered pirates hijack often say they never saw the pirates coming. In most of the cases, they are not able to identify it, especially when pirates use small fishing boats as a disguise.

Amplifying Maritime Situational Awareness with AI

In order to curb unprecedented piracy attacks, maritime situational awareness is vital to provide crew members with a comprehensive understanding of the activities in surrounding waters and present opportunities to detect and mitigate threats or any vulnerabilities before any further damage or adversity happens. The ability to predict, track and record an attack in real-time relieves distressful hassle from a post-incident recovery procedure.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has made headway to enhance maritime safety, optimise business operations and processes, and aid in voyage planning and vessel maintenance. AI allows new sense-making possibilities by quickly generating insights through deep analysis of data and relaying critical information to the right people promptly so that decisions can be made for the best outcomes. The use of AI-based systems to create fully automated piracy alerts can allow seafarers a few moments to react, potentially saving lives.

One of AI’s classification is behavioural analysis to identify and recognise the possible patterns of suspicious activities from the pirates based on past incidents and aggregate information. Human resource alone is outright ineffective to watch, report and analyse every ship movements at all times. Our alertness lapse when we get tired, and we can’t see in darkness, rain and fog. The capability of behavioural analytics helps to identify the characteristics of a pirate, providing important and insightful information to the crew, giving them early warning and response time to prepare their defences against the impending threat.

In cracking down on maritime piracy, one must first understand how pirates operate and make their advances. Behavioural analytics, a new holistic interpretation of raw empirical data, can dramatically enhance the crew’s situational awareness by monitoring data and motion within the vicinity of a vessel in detail. These information includes identifying the number of boats and other neighbouring ships within the same waters, the routes and speeds it crosses paths to determine distinct patterns, unknown correlation and provide clarity to ambiguities.

Taking On a Smarter Approach to Counteract Piracy with Comprehensive Analytics

All ships involved in regional and international shipping have radars installed, and the great majority are equipped with navigation radars as their primary sensors to navigate the sea-lanes safely. Navigation radars, unlike military grade surveillance radars, do have limitations in detecting small boats. Pirates around the world have one modus operandi in common; they attack using skiffs that are difficult to detect using navigational radar. Manoeuvring skiffs, which are low-lying blend into the cluttered waves, can be tricky for conventional maritime radar, appearing and disappearing on the user interface. Hence, the primary defences of the ship is typically to deploy crew members on watch duty, scanning the sea waters around for “suspicious vessels” that may harbor pirates waiting in ambush. The frailties of the human body is such that we do not see well in darkness, rain and fog, and our alertness wane when we get tired. This gives an upper hand to the pirates. By capitalising on Track-Before-Detect (TBD) radar technology that amplifies significant signals to pick up every small detail in the maritime environment, these skiffs can be easily tracked and detected.

One of the measures to counteract piracy is applying advanced digital signal processing, and in-depth data analysis to the targets picked up by radar before declaring it a threat, allowing seafarers to get a heightened situational overview in real-time. Knowing the range of tactics deployed by pirates and making a pre-emptive call to action for crew to prepare against boarding is the key to success. With this combination of technologies, the movements of pirates which include direct boarding, loitering, or sudden change in direction will not go undetected. On the contrary, stationary buoys, fishing boats or noise from the cluttered sea environment should not trigger unnecessary nuisance alarms, which could be an unwelcome distraction to the crew. The study and analysis of pirates’ movements enable the system to execute vigilance while simultaneously create timely and accurate threat alerts.

Within seconds of tracking and monitoring behaviour, it can be determined if the skiff is going to collide or turn into the vessel, and eventually triggering an alert to the crew. Pirates disguised as fishing boats and making sudden movements, high speed headings, or dubiously moving back and forth the ship, could be recognised as suspicious behaviour. In another sense, the aggression of the pirates is identified, and further differentiated from unsuspecting boats. As soon the threats are detected, besides getting away by increasing the speed, several deterrent systems could be activated at the same time. Surveillance cameras, search beams, and long-range acoustic devices could be integrated to automatically warn off the hostile vessel, collect video evidence for follow-up enforcement action, making AI actionable.

Preserving Evidence for Post-Event Investigation

For any hijacking attempted, whether successful but hopefully not, video and any other relevant information collected on the perpetrators by the on-board “black box” recording system should be preserved and handed over to the relevant maritime law enforcement authorities for follow up investigation and prosecution. This is an essential step to containing the piracy scourge. Besides witness statements from the crew, this “black box” of reliable video footages and recorded radar tracks on the pirate ship with insightful data become crucial pieces of information for the nominated authorities to take enforcement action.

Gearing Up For the Next Phase of Maritime Safety

The international shipping industry and maritime activities will continue to evolve exponentially. There is no doubt that new approaches, fresh-thinking and future-ready technology, when applied intelligently, can fortify the marine sector in overcoming deep-rooted safety challenges and piracy threats. With today’s advances in surveillance technologies, maritime safety and monitoring systems have become more innovative than ever and highly effective at identifying suspicious activities in real-time. Success in fighting off pirates goes to those who are well prepared and determined.

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