How to Repel Pirates? Blast Them With a Laser Cannon

By Eliza Strickland | January 10, 2011 1:03 pm

A shaft of green laser light spears out from a cargo ship, targeting a small skiff bobbing in the ocean almost a mile away. The armed miscreants aboard the skiff take one look at the dazzling light and shield their eyes with cries of distress. How can these pirates attack if they can’t see?

That’s the idea behind an anti-pirate laser cannon being developed by a UK defense company in response to the increase in hijackings off the coast of Somalia. The laser would be used in conjunction with ships’ high-frequency surface radars that detect the small vessels used by Somali pirates, and it would function as a kind of warning shot across their bow. New Scientist reports that the laser isn’t intended to fry pirates to a crisp, nor even to blind them forever:

“This is very much a non-lethal weapon,” says Bryan Hore of BAE Systems in Farnborough, UK, where the system was developed. By taking into account the range of the target, as well as the atmospheric conditions, the system can automatically regulate the intensity of the laser beam to ensure there is no lasting eye damage, he says.

That’s important in cases of mistaken identity–it would be bad form to blind innocent fishermen or pleasure boaters.

BAE Systems says the laser system would work in daylight and at night, and says the effect of looking into the 3-foot-wide laser beam is akin to looking directly at the sun for a moment. According to The Telegraph:

“We are using the laser as a kind of dummy sun that we can hide the vessel behind,” said Roy Clarke, BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre.

The laser offers a two-stage defense: It would first serve as a warning to pirates that the ship won’t be taken by surprise. Should the pirates persevere, the power can be cranked up further to prevent the pirates from taking aim with their weapons–typically assault rifles and grenade launchers.

The system has already been tested with optical sensors to determine its effectiveness across long distances. If international agencies approve it for commercial use, it could be available in a year or two.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Recycled-Plastic Boat to Sail the Pacific; Somali Pirates Unimpressed
Discoblog: Lasers Gone Awry: Russian Ravers Partially Blinded by the Light
80beats: Is the Anti-Whaling Activist Who Boarded a Japanese Whaling Ship a Pirate?
80beats: Peeping Tom Camera Uses Lasers to Peer Around Corners
80beats: High-Tech Fizzle: Laser-Bearing Jumbo Jet Fails to Destroy Test Missile

Image: BAE Systems. This artist’s illustration shows a red laser varient.

MORE ABOUT: lasers, pirates, Somalia, weapons
  • Brian

    I predict an boom in the Somali mirror sunglasses industry.

  • Aaron

    Forget Ninjas–This is pirates versus SCIENCE!

  • Markle

    Laser = monochromatic. Anti-green filter. Expensive piece of kit defeated.

  • james

    How long before these lasers can cook the pirates or set the boat on fire in an instant?

  • Brian Too

    I still say that a pair of .50 caliber machine guns on a bait ship are all you need. Once the pirates start disappearing on their raids, word will get around where it needs to.

    As long as the shipping companies keep paying ransoms it encourages exactly the wrong kind of behaviour. No matter what those civilian carriers use as their rationalizations.


    I agree with Briantoo. As long as the pirates are rewarded for their actions they will keep repeating them. A few armed merchantmen shooting back and the problem would disappear. What ever happened to “We will not negotiate with terrorists”?

  • Daniel

    Another solution for a problem that doesn’t exist (other than bolstering that company’s bank account). Cannons have served well against pirates for several centuries.

  • James Lee

    Radar lock Mini ball guns fore,aft,port,& starboard would end all forms of piracy. This would indicate proximity limit as absolute.

  • Jockaira

    Most ports serviced by cargo ships have laws and regulations against weapons such as guns, etc. Most insurance carriers either will not insure ships with weapons aboard or will quote rates so high that the ship’s owners cannot afford it. Most crew members will not sail on a ship that is armed or is expected to be involved in actions against pirates etc.

    A “bait” ship seems a workable alternative to arming regular cargo vessels but the legal ramifications include the proprietors of the bait ship being charged with entrapment and wrongful death, as most countries are signers of international agreements limiting the legal penalties for piracy to life imprisonment and not hanging from the yardarm, keelhauling, walking the plank, or other entertaining diversions.

    The above does not preclude outfitting (with proper authority) a dedicated pirate pursuit vessel and crew or a military naval mission, although the latter experience has shown that no one is eager to assume the costs of prosecution or the costs of incarceration.

    The Russian method seems to be cost effective and with no legal consequences as long as everybody involved keeps his mouth shut.


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