Drone piracy

Drones have transformed modern maritime warfare – could piracy be next? 

Drones have transformed modern maritime warfare – could piracy be next? 

The age of the technologically advanced maritime pirate may soon be upon us. In 2021, an Israeli tanker, Mercer Street, was targeted in a drone Kamikaze attack, killing a British security guard and a Romanian crew member. But though it was initially described as a ‘pirate’ attack, this was later walked back as it emerged that the drone was most likely Iranian in origin, probably a Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – something that Iran has strenuously denied. 

The Shahed-136 has been repurposed by Russia in its latest war as the Geran-2, which Iran also denies. Russia is not the only one to deploy drones, however; Ukraine has attacked Russian ships with uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) laden with explosives. The technique is also favoured by Iran, and is part of a growing doctrine of asymmetrical warfare at sea – one which could allow a country without money for torpedoes to annihilate entire carrier groups. 

Less than a year ago, a new type of US military sailing drone was kidnapped by Iran in the Red Sea. “The [Iranian navy] frigate Jamaran seized the two vessels on Thursday to prevent any possible accident after issuing warnings to the US fleet. After international shipping lanes were secured, the two vessels were released in a safe area,” said Iranian state TV. 

Low cost of entry 

Warfare and military intelligence are far from the only fields that could be transformed by both UAVs and USVs, however. Assuming a hijackers’ aims could be effectively communicated to crew, there can be no doubt that a single drone pirate could do the job that today requires eight gunmen. The swashbuckler, then, might be next in line to lose his job to automation.  

“It is often said that criminals are much faster than states in adopting and employing technology. Today, we worry about cybersecurity attacks against vessels or port electronic systems, the use of drones for the planning or execution of terrorist attacks, the use of marine autonomous vessels (MAVs) for armed robbery, piracy, human trafficking and other illegal activities,” said Dr Sofia Galani, assistant professor in public international law from Panteion University in Greece, at a recent House of Lords committee

As embattled nations build up their capacity for asymmetric warfare, taking advantage of a low cost of entry, the potential attraction for criminals seems impossible to ignore. 

Activities using MAVs can even be conducted from land, said professor Anna Petrig from the University of Basel in the House of Lords committee’s report, posing an additional jurisdictional challenge to international efforts to clamp down on piracy.  

Shadowy interests 

The current landscape is analogous to that of the birth of modern piracy. In 2008, a new opportunity emerged for budding entrepreneurs along the Gulf of Aden coast. Already possessing seafaring expertise and high risk tolerance from a lifetime of poverty, fishermen could expand into piracy with only minimal outlay for cheap Soviet rifles, ladders and skiffs.  

The presence of navies and armed guards deterred the build-up of pirate operations, and new initiatives to boost employment on land made it possible to feed a family. It appeared most potential pirates preferred a wage – even an atrocious one – to the precarious lifestyle of a pirate.  

For the shadowy interests that fund piracy however, this is leaving money on the table, which could find itself being spent on drones.  

With a lower risk to the human operator, relatively small financial outlay, and a reduced deterrent from a visible naval presence, drones might be the chosen method for a disruptive organisation to forge a path in this challenging business environment.  

With the risk of drone-based piracy increasing, counter-piracy operations will also turn to uncrewed vehicles. Long-range vertical take-off and landing UAVs such as the High Eye Airboxer could be well-suited to the task. High Eye CEO Joost De Ruiter told Seatrade Maritime News that oil tanker operators were interested in using the craft to fly 12nm ahead, to detect and avoid potential threats.  

As UAVs and USVs propagate throughout militaries, proving themselves a low-cost, low-risk, high-return strategy time and again, it seems ever more likely that this technology will find its way into private hands. 


Charlie Bartlett is a journalist specialising in maritime.