LONDON (AFP) — Gone are the swashbuckling days of repelling pirates with cutlasses -- a British firm is spearheading use of a high-tech "sonic laser" to beat bandits on the high seas.
The piracy problems of shipping firms running through the Gulf of Aden and down Africa's east coast have been thrown into the spotlight this week by the seizure of the Saudi Arabian super-tanker Sirius Star.
But help could be at hand in the form of a long range acoustic device (LRAD) -- hooked up to a humble MP3 player.
About the size of a domestic satellite dish, LRADs blast the target with a precise beam of sound -- warning messages, noises, sirens -- which can be turned up to excruciatingly painful levels should an attacker get too close.
British private firm Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (APMSS) hires out three-man teams of ex-military personnel bearing LRADs on ships and has been inundated with work as the piracy problem off Somalia worsens.
"You'll be in absolute agony," APMSS chief executive Nick Davis, a 38-year-old ex-army man, told AFP.
"They're loudhailers that are coupled up to an MP3 player.
"It's very effective up to 1,000 metres and excruciating if you get within 100 to 200 metres if it's at full power. It would give you more or less permanent hearing damage."
With close to 100 attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean this year, pirates pose an increasing threat to international trade.
Heavily in demand, APMSS will have its full complement of 10 three-man security teams operating on ships in the Gulf of Aden next week.
Hiring a team with all the equipment for a three-day journey costs around 14,000 pounds (21,00 dollars, 16,500 euros) inclusive of insurance and travel costs.
Davis said his firm uses a "non-lethal approach", adding: "but you've got to get very close to lethal for it to be an effective deterrent".
"The operator can point the dish towards the incoming pirate boats and initially give them warning tones and then messages to make their intentions clear.
"If they continue coming, they give them a warning in their native language," he said.
An APMSS crew thwarted a pirate attack on a chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden last Thursday, just 15 miles (24 kilometres) off the Yemeni coast.
Three skiffs hurtled towards the vessel, but were spotted by the team at five miles away, triggering a full response with evasive manoeuvres, water cannon, an alert to coalition forces -- and the LRAD.
"At two miles they sounded the general alarm. The pirates slowed down at around 600 metres and continued to 400 metres, waving AK47s," Davis said.
But the sonic blast put them off.
"The pirates then turned away and went to the vessel without security that was three to four miles behind ours," he said.
"They fired against the vessel, by which time, luckily, the French navy were only 40 miles away. A Lynx helicopter was dispatched and when the pirates saw that they diverted towards the Yemeni beach.
"That attack was foiled. A good encounter."