Piracy on the high seas is finally being fought with modern technology. Faced with rising numbers of raids on their cargo ships, mainly in the waters of South-East Asia, Japanese shipping companies have decided that enough is enough. Maritime piracy has been a scourge since the days of the Roman Empire, and the tools of the trade have hardly changed. The pirates' usual modus operandi is to pull alongside freighters at night and throw grappling hooks onto their deck rails. The countermeasures are not much more sophisticated.
Five-fold increase in attacks against Japanese ships over the past four years has forced the industry to rethink. Last year there were more than 300 pirate attacks around the world, according to the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Of those attacks, 34 were against Japanese ships.
15 Japanese vessels have been fitted with a new system called Toranomon - "Tiger's Gate" that can detect when grappling irons are thrown onto the deck. It consists of a taut wire strung along the deck rail and attached to a mirror. If the wire is stretched or cut by a grappling hook, the mirror will move, breaking a light beam that passes through an optical fibre to a sensor. The sensor in turn triggers an alarm and switches on floodlights on deck.
As a second line of defence, the Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) has developed an improved version of a tracking system to raise the alarm. Its existing system, called Fleet Remote Monitoring (FROM), contacts each ship six times a day, receiving an automated signal back that gives the ship's position, speed and direction. But pirates know about FROM and often disable it as soon as they board. So several NYK vessels are now field-testing a system called the Seajack Alarm, which alerts the ship owner by e-mail and cell phone when a vessel fails to respond to the FROM signal.
Another approach has been taken by the IMB. It has created a tracking system that's so small--about the size of a shoebox that pirates can't find it to disable it. Called Shiploc, even the crew don't know where it is, says IMB deputy director Jayant Abhyanka, so pirates can't force them to reveal its whereabouts.