Math versus pirates

Although it's fallen off of the headlines lately, piracy continues to be a big problem, with an annual economic impact estimated at $10 billion. Fighting pirates after they've already attacked is only so effective. And trying to track them down and bring them to justice before a raid is next to impossible. The best solution is to just keep boats and pirates away from one another. But how? Applied mathematician James Hansen* has an idea. With the Naval Research Laboratory he's put together a computer model of pirate behavior.


The project combines data on wind, waves and currents with intelligence gathered by informants, surveillance and other means on pirate habits: how far their small skiffs can travel; their assault tactics; the timing of forays.

Running the model yields maps that show the highest-risk areas. Adding real-time information on ship traffic can identify possible pirate targets.

"It's sort of like tornado warnings," Hansen said. Everyone may know the probability of tornadoes spikes during the spring in Oklahoma. But what residents want to know is whether a twister is likely headed their way today.

The pirate model may be able to provide ship captains and security forces with that level of alert, by combining statistical odds with on-the-ground observations. Weather is clearly important to pirates, who can't operate in rough seas, Hansen pointed out. "These guys are running around in tiny ships."

Followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, rejoice!

(Via Mara Grunbaum)

*Not that James Hansen. A different one.