British engineers are reportedly in the advanced stages of developing a new type of defence system which is set to use lasers to incapacitate pirates, dazzling them as they approach targetted vessels.
The non-lethal weapon, developed by defence company BAE Systems, is according to the manufacturers effective against moving targets more than a mile away.
The company has started developing the laser in response to the growing threat from pirates to commercial vessels, particularly off the coast of Somalia where there have been several high profile hijackings.
The device effectively hides the vessel carrying it in a bright green glare from the laser, forcing the pirates off course and leaving them unable to aim their weapons accurately.
“We are using the laser as a kind of dummy sun that we can hide the vessel behind,” said Roy Clarke, BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre.
“As you go up in power with a laser, you get to a point looking at it creates a big bright light that dominates everything in your field of view.”
BAE has conducted trials on the laser at the Pershore Laser Trials Range in Worchester.
It can work in day light as well as night by directing a concentrated three foot wide beam of bright green light at a target which can temporarily dazzle anyone who looks at it.
The system is being developed so that it can be used with high frequency surface radar that can pick up the kind of fast small vessels used by Somali pirates.
The system would then automatically direct the laser towards the target. It can also rapidly fire beams at multiple targets to produce an intensive flickering effect that increases the dazzle affect.
The laser uses powers within the safety limits that do not cause blindness in case the system mistakes an innocent vessel as a threat.
Bryan Hore, the head of BAE Systems new antipiracy arm, said: “We have started to look at the piracy issue over the past 18 months due to the increasing threats to vessels around the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.
“The laser provides a secondary capability over larger distances as it can act like a warning.
“Pirates approaching a vessel rely on the element of surprise, so by detecting those vessels and directing a laser onto them more than a kilometre away, it provides a clear signal to them.
“As the pirates come closer to about 400 or 500 metres of the ship, the power of the laser can be increased so that it affects their concentration and distracts them.
“We are also going to look at how different patterns and flickering can increase that affect.”
It comes after it emerged the British military command post running naval operations against Somali pirates is threatened with closure under cost cutting plans.
More than 600 sailors are currently thought to being held hostage by Somali pirates, who have hijacked 47 vessels this year. There were 440 piracy incidents worldwide in 2010 and 51 hijackings.
But the pirates are not just targeting commercial tankers and cargo ships. British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler were held for more than a year when a gang of pirates snatched them from their yacht as they made a round the world trip.
The laser, which will have to be approved for use under the UN’s protocol on blinding laser weapons before it can be deployed on ships, could also be mounted on smaller yachts to help protect them from being targeted.