Piracy and Autonomous Ships

If a vessel has no crew, what next for the pirates?

More than 340 piracy incidents have been recorded by MariTrace so far in 2016, with 55 (16%) involving the kidnapping of one or more personnel from the vessel.  In the four years leading up to this, the percentage of incidents involving kidnapping had hovered at 4-5% following a steady decrease from its peak of 14% back in 2008.

So why is this number increasing?  One suggestion is that the ratio of financial return to effort is far greater for taking crew members hostage and demanding a ransom than it is for stealing the crew’s belongings or cargo, or even taking the vessel to ransom back to the owner.

The ransoms demanded for kidnapped crew varies greatly depending on the geographical area.  The Bay of Bengal, specifically the waters around Calcutta, have had many incidents where local fishing vessels have been attacked and the workers taken hostage with ransoms being demanded of hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Compare this to the Gulf of Guinea where the usual victims are tankers and large cargo vessels and you start seeing ransoms demanded reaching into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Autonomous vessels will help relieve this issue on larger commercial vessels, but of course the main concentration is likely to be on finances rather than security (these can often be the same thing).  Sailors cost money and take up large amounts of space on the vessel for eating, sleeping and other activities.  Supplies need to be stored to provision for them, and their ‘output’ needs to be stored until there is an appropriate place to remove them from the vessel safely, cleanly, and legally.  All this space and effort could be far more profitable if spent on further paying cargo.

All that said, in a token nod towards security, it could be argued that removing crew from a vessel may help to relieve problems caused by human error and fatigue.  You could also, rather cynically, consider that the potential for kidnapping is not just a security consideration but also a financial one, as the vessel operator should no longer be required to maintain a K&R insurance policy.

Having established that pirates will no longer be able to kidnap crew if there are no crew on board to be kidnapped, this does open several new security holes.  For example, measures would have to be taken to ensure the operator is made known of anybody boarding the vessel.  With no crew, pirates would meet no resistance on the vessel and would be free to steal at their leisure, though the design of future vessels with no crewing requirements may also introduce the ability to further secure cargo against such things.

A more likely threat would be cyber piracy.  If a vessel has no crew, then there must be a communications channel open to allow the operator to control everything on board the vessel remotely.  If the vessel can be accessed by an authorised operator, then malicious hackers will almost certainly find a way to gain control.  This could be used to aid pirates who have physically boarded the vessel, or to remotely take control and divert the vessel.

This could open a whole new type of piracy, where the vessel itself is taken hostage by pirates without ever having to physically approach it.  A vessel could be effectively held hostage, cargo and all, until a ransom is paid and control given back to the rightful operator.

All this is, of course, very much a problem for the future, as the process of designing, approving and building, not just the vessel itself, but the various infrastructures that would need to be in place is likely to be many years in the making.  Assuming this happens, the effect it will eventually have on piracy will certainly be dramatic, but piracy has evolved a lot over the last few centuries and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to do so.

MariTrace has a host of piracy intelligence.  Click here for more information on MariTrace, or click here for a map of the latest incidents.