Ahoy, Matey! South Africa Launches Pirate Satellite Network

South Africa has launched a Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system, a sophisticated network of satellites meant to monitor sea vessels and track down pirates. Somali pirates are increasingly moving South, putting South African vessels in greater jeopardy.

Last year alone there were over 400 incidents of piracy off the horn of Africa, resulting in $238 million in ransoms. At this moment, pirates off the Somalia coast are in control of 30 ships, containing 660 hostages. 

"This is a revolutionary development in the security of our seas," said Karl Otto, head of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA). "Until now, we had very limited capacity to identify, track and monitor beyond the horizon. Many ships have sailed our waters without our knowledge."

LRIT tracks vessels that roam south of the equator--its range reaches up to 1,000 nautical miles from South Africa's coast and is meant to be an alert system for potential pirate vessels, as well as to help track shipwrecks and marine pollution.  The system was initially set up for last year's World Cup, but has transitioned into becoming a crime-fighting apparatus. 

The LRIT is "half the equation and a step in the right direction," UN satellite monitoring specialist, Lars Bromley, tells Fast Company.

Tracking systems are only effective at preventing piracy if there is a mechanism in place to track vessels that are not formally registered, says Bromley.

Most ships have transponders that communicate with satellites in orbit and communicate data such as speed and location. A pirate vessel would not have a transponder present, for fear of being tracked, and so the test for South Africa will be to monitor those vessels that are unregistered and unrecognized.

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