Wi-Fi boosts safety for ships at anchor

Piracy at sea captures the headlines, but ships can be equally vulnerable to attack in anchorages. Dr Dave Sloggett explores the potential of Wi-Fi to help secure ships at anchor from piracy

Wi-Fi boosts safety for ships at anchor

The decline in attacks off the coast of Somalia and the stabilisation of the situation in the Gulf of Guinea could easily create the impression that the problems associated with piracy have gone away. Whilst the situations are to be welcomed, the level of robberies on board vessels at anchor in places such as Indonesia and Bangladesh remain problematic.

Whilst the economic impact of these attacks is insignificant as far as the ship owners are concerned, with robbers tending to loot crew valuables and machine spare parts, the potential for serious violence against the crew or kidnapping people to be held for ransom is always lurking in the background. That can be a far more costly exercise.

The problem of creating a secure environment at anchorages where local civil and military security is either absent or available in a limited way is therefore one that needs attention. Countries such as Indonesia, with anchorages spread out over a large geographic area, have specific problems. Their naval capability simply cannot provide the levels of coverage required to provide a secure anchorage.  

Additionally, as a developing economic country they simply do not have the wherewithal to invest in the number of vessels and patrol planes required to maintain a posture that would deter those engaged in the criminal behaviour. So what other solutions might be available?

Secure Wi-Fi
One possible answer lies in the creation of a secure Wi-Fi network that enables information and imagery collected from cameras on vessels to be shared in real-time between vessels in an anchorage for mutual support. This would allow the cameras on each vessel to be used in a way that optimises protection for all vessels in the anchorage.

A simple decision support tool could easily provide the suggestions as to the arcs of surveillance that each camera should be focused upon to provide maximum coverage.

For the sake of argument it can be called AnchorageNet. It would also share the picture it generates with the port and harbour authorities who can also run a node on the network to provide local security personnel with situational awareness. The relatively small set up costs should be paid by governments anxious to avoid their anchorages being tarnished as being unsafe.

The service can be paid for by both the port operator and the commercial operators of the vessels and used during the vulnerable night-time hours. It is readily justified by the combination of the nuisance costs involved in the theft of machine parts and crew’s personal belongings that arise each time a robbery at anchorage takes place.

The technology for such a solution is readily available and is a cost-effective alternative to satellite and mobile radio solutions. It would be based on contemporary Wi-Fi solutions nominated by the 802.11 Working Group.

Interference issues
The selection of which particular part of the radio spectrum, from 2.4GHz to 5.9GHz, to use for the service would depend on possible local interference from licensed amateur radio operators or other users that are already active and on local propagation conditions.

While the problem of radio interference may be an issue in some parts of the world, such as the United States, in places such as Indonesia the issue of possible interference may be less of an issue.

If it is assumed that each vessel has four 1.3-megapixel cameras on board that can generate real-time video at medium scale resolution (120kb frame size) and data is captured at ten frames per second the overall bandwidth requirements per vessel is 38.4Mbps.

This is well within the available 54Mbps per user node typically offered by a Wi-Fi service. An alternative configuration where frames are captured at a rate of five per second with a high resolution (180kb) video quality requires 28.8Mbps. It is not difficult to envisage the configuration of the whole network being dynamically planned as the number of ships entering and leaving an anchorage varies.

Over the sea, wavelengths around 10cm are not obstructed by walls of buildings as they are in a domestic situation. Line of sight to a nearby vessel at anchor is all that is required and separation distances are not sufficient to create a problem with respect to the transmitter power required to maintain a working signal strength for the receiver for the network not to degrade to a point where real-time video cannot be exchanged between participating nodes.

The propagation conditions over the sea can become problematic when the Wi-Fi signals reach the radio horizon (around 8-10 nautical miles) when signal fading phenomena can occur. Multi-path effects may also create some reception conditions if significant local terrain features (such as cliffs) are present.

For vessels based at the extreme ends of the anchorage the range to the foreshore and the port security hub may be on the edge of coverage and require images they generate to be stored and forwarded via nodes in other vessels that act in a relay capacity.

Ship to shore
At the central hub in the anchorage the port authorities can then dial any one of the cameras on board any vessel and provide an alternative pair of eyes watching for any breaches of security.

Vessels entering the anchorage would sign into the secure network. Each vessel would be a node in the network for the duration of the time they are either in the anchorage or tied up alongside. That would enable their position at anchorage or in port to be exchanged with other vessels. The situation of all the vessels would then be displayed on a computer screen with information on recent robberies (such as the time they occurred) in the area provided to all crews.  

The decision support system run on each vessel would then work out the best way to use any on-board camera systems to provide the widest possible coverage of the anchorage and harbour as is possible. The aim would be to use past knowledge of typical approach routes that might be used by pirates and robbers and ensure they were covered both by day and during the night-time using infra-red cameras.  

The duty watch officer on each vessel in the network would be able to switch between the various cameras to provide an alert to all vessels in the anchorage or harbour of a possible suspicious approach. Once a threat was detected a general alert to all crews to muster would be sounded. This would have a significant deterrent effect upon the robbers who simply do not wish to be caught.

Night attacks
One such event occurred on 26 June this year when robbers boarded a container ship at anchor 11 nautical miles north, north east from Pulau Bintan in Indonesia.
At 2 o’clock in the morning a crew member noticed a boat approaching the stern of their vessel. After raising the alarm the robbers quickly turned and fled. This attempted robbery was almost identical to one that had occurred in the same vicinity on 3 May 2014.

Just hours earlier, on 25 June 2014, across the other side of the Pacific Ocean, off Columbia a similar set of events took place; although this time the robbers did escape with ships stores.

Of the 111 piracy and robbery reports collated by the International Maritime Bureau by 26 June 2014, 65 (58.5%) involved an attempt to rob a vessel at anchor or whilst in a berth. Only two of these attacks occurred during the daylight hours.

Of the total of 65 attempts, 39 (60% of the attempts) involved the successful removal of ships stores and 26 were abandoned due to the alertness of the crews. These figures provide important insights – on a small number of the occasions that the robbers did succeed in stealing ships stores they also threatened the crew with knives.

These figures show that the point at which vessels at anchor are most vulnerable is during the night. While preventing stores and engine room parts being stolen is not necessarily a high priority, the protection of the crew from the threat of violence is.

A capability such as the hypothetical AnchorageNet, based on contemporary Wi-Fi technologies, would contribute significantly to improving the overall maritime security at anchorages and provide a relatively cheap alternative to the large sums of money that many countries find hard to invest in inshore patrol vessels and aircraft.

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