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EU research project refining new reconnaissance and decision-support software to detect and respond to at-sea piracy threats


BRUSSELS – While Europe’s irregular migration crisis has grabbed nearly all the headlines, other maritime challenges remain such as piracy, which still poses a significant threat to merchant shipping in the African region.

According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau, there were 127 actual or attempted pirate attacks worldwide during January-September, of which 43 took place in African waters – mainly in the Gulf of Guinea and other points along the West African coastline.

The number of attacks has fallen dramatically since 2011 but has not gone away. One EU-funded security research project aims to push the trend even further downward with an all-encompassing technical solution whose applications could extend beyond counter-piracy as well.

Known as IPATCH (“Intelligent Piracy Avoidance using Threat detection and Countermeasure Heuristics”), the three-year project was launched in April 2014 with a total budget of EUR 4.2 million of which the EU contributed 70 percent.

IPATCH is focused on two broad strands of work: 1) a comprehensive technological solution for better crew awareness of what is going on in the sea around them and 2) assessing how effective counter-measures currently used on vessels are stopping attacks, plus the legal constraints surrounding them.

The assessment work has been completed, according to Thomas Cane, IPATCH’s project manager who works at UK-based BMT Group Ltd.

Speaking to SECURITY EUROPE, he said IPATCH will circulate the results in the form of a counter-measures manual to international shipping stakeholders, possibly via the International Maritime Organisation. The manual will not be made publicly available, however, due to its contents’ sensitive nature.

IPATCH’s technological solution is an on-board situational awareness system which “not only monitors the situation [around a shipping vessel], but offers the characteristics of a pirate attack to warn the crew effectively,” noted Cane.

Comprised of a sensor suite, threat recognition component and a decision support tool, the system is designed for installation on a vessel along with visual and thermal cameras. Together, all would utilise a ship’s existing radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) functionality, plus other navigational data such as wind speed.

“The project has developed computer vision algorithms which can reliably detect the small, fast-moving boats that pirates use, and which normal navigational radar struggles with,” said Cane.

Other algorithms created by IPATCH enable video feeds to detect other vessels to ascertain whether they are a fishing boat or a pirate threat; to track vessels around the ship; to fuse information from all the cameras and radar to produce a single operational picture; and to determine if tracked ships display normal activity patterns or suspicious behaviour based on their movements.

All the collected information is assessed by a threat detection algorithm “which ultimately decides to alert the captain or not,” said Cane, adding that the information is presented on a dedicated screen in the bridge which will automatically release an alarm if a significant threat is detected. As for IPATCH’s decision-support tool, this helps the captain choose the most effect counter-measure for a given situation.

IPATCH will soon conduct its first sea trials of the system to determine whether the on-board capability can perform in a working environment. The project team will equip their system on a Greek tanker vessel for a live demonstration, which will signal the project’s end.

     THE UPSHOT: IPATCH is an algorithm-heavy system, which means there is will be considerable risks of software glitches and interoperability problems with a vessel’s on-board legacy software systems. Moreover, given the myriad unpredictable factors posed by operations at sea, asking algorithms to handle all this seems a rather tall task.
     But if the project’s research team pulls it off, it would not only help make commercial shipping more secure, but might even pave the way for the IPATCH system to be adapted to other scenarios such as port and harbour monitoring, coastal and high-seas oil rig surveillance, or even migrant and man-overboard detection at sea.

About Chris Dalby

Chris Dalby is deputy editor and webmaster at SECURITY EUROPE. He can be reached at: cd@securityeurope.info

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