As this summer’s Navy SEAL beatdown briefly brought to the world’s attention, there’s a festering piracy problem in the waters off the Horn of Africa. The pirates, in large part unchallenged, are growing bolder, striking in waters as far out as 1,000 nautical miles from Somali shores. Patrolling such large part swath of the Indian Ocean might be impossible if not for the tech the U.S. has recently rolled out to protect her maritime interests: unmanned Reaper drones armed with infrared eyes.
The remotely-piloted MQ 9 Reaper UAVs are similar to the ones seeking out (and destroying) targets in Eastern Afghanistan, and can stay aloft for 18 hours at a time — good for patrolling massive stretches of ocean. When flying high, the Reaper is virtually invisible and its radar signature negligible, giving it the drop on any would-be hijackers. While Reapers can be armed with up to 14 Hellfire missiles, the UAVs patrolling the waters off Somalia aren’t packing munitions. Instead, they are armed with cameras that can zoom in on suspected pirates from heights of up to 50,000 feet. Those high-powered optics, coupled with infrared sensors, could be the key to discouraging piracy in the long run.
One of the key problems with piracy off the Horn of Africa is the fact that it’s hard for international authorities to build a case against even the most well-known, notorious swashbucklers. As the crimes unfold on the high seas, authorities almost never arrive at a crime in progress. Even when they do catch pirates after the fact, their weapons and booty are generally nowhere to be found, and authorities set them free for lack of evidence.
But the Reapers aim to change that, not only by helping authorities keep tabs on pirates during their peak business hours, but also by collecting photographic evidence of the crimes. If cases start mounting against pirates and more of them are land in Western prisons, it might serve as a deterrent to others practicing the craft.
And if the cameras don’t work, they can always switch back to the missiles.