When people find out what I do for a living, they often remark that it must be “really exciting!” Truth is, in my day to day role, the excitement usually comes from nailing a proposal and/or getting a green-light on a project, the type of excitement they are referring to is largely the domain of Kevin and the rest of our – excellent! – team.
Recently though, I got my day in the sun. Literally.
Our anti-piracy film for Save Our Seafarers has won us praise, some awards, and enquiries over the past year or so, but one of the most interesting developments came recently, when we were asked to film the onwater trials for a new anti-piracy system called WatchStander.
The biggest issue facing cargo ships passing through dangerous waters, such as the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, is that pirates usually attack in small speedboats, launched from nearby motherships. By the time these small boats appear on the horizon, they’re usually travelling too quickly for the cargo ships to take a defensive course and raise the alarm, and often the captains take the decision to stand down and allow the pirates to board, rather than risk the lives of their crew by engaging the pirates in fire-fights.
WatchStander is an early alert system, which employs a series of escalating, non-lethal countermeasures, to warn pirates that they have been spotted, the authorities have been alerted, and that the ship will defend itself vigorously.
It is a software brain developed on the back of US military algorithms, which uses off-the-shelf radar and countermeasures to take a 3 mile snapshot around a cargo ship. Each radar signal which is returned is logged and tracked, and as soon as one of the targets takes an ‘attack’ course, the system springs into life. Depending on the installation preferred by the ship’s owner, the system bombards the ‘attacking’ vessel with high intensity searchlights, lasers, audio warning signals and messages, air-propelled missiles and dye packs, and more. The entire encounter is also video-recorded, covering the ship’s owner, operator and captain against legal action taken by suspected pirates [interestingly, such cases have been brought in British courts].
80% of pirate attacks will be aborted if they lose the element of surprise.
After years of development, substantial investment, and exhaustive trials, it was time to finally show the system off to potential customers and the press, and this took place in the Chesapeake Bay, Solomons, Maryland on September 27th. By total coincidence, I was due to be in Baltimore in September, so took the, um, ‘managerial’ decision to extend my trip and tough it out filming in the 85F heat.