A 21st Century Spyglass Could Save the Next Captain Phillips from Somali Pirates

by Sumit Gupta

It’s a gripping scene: Tom Hanks, in the smash Hollywood movie “Captain Phillips,” eyes approaching green blips on his crude sonar screen and begins to worry about Somali pirates.

It’s not until they’re within focus of his binoculars – a tool little better than the spyglasses used by 18th century sailors– that Hanks’ character can fully appreciate the dangers that lie ahead.

Times are changing fast for those rounding the Horn of Africa, however, with international navies using GPUs to help give captains sharper eyes.

The Dutch Navy has equipped patrol ships like the MS Holland with advanced sensors, radars and cameras to help sailors detect and capture pirates day or night.

Eyes wide open: sailors can see trouble before trouble sees them.

An Ultra-Modern Crow’s Nest

All the MS Holland’s tracking and security systems are combined into a single structure called the “Integrated Mast“ (i-Mast) – which looks like a sleek, steeply sloped obelisk topped with a sphere – made by the Netherland’s Thales Group.

Positioned in the middle of the ship, at its highest point, this ultra-modern crow’s nest replaces a collection of dishes, antennae and rotating devices.

The i-Mast, which has a radar range of some 250 kilometers, relies on NVIDIA Tesla GPUs and CUDA for accelerating image and video analytics. These let it stitch together video from regular and infrared vision cameras to create a 360 degree panoramic video.

The system also does automatic object detection and tracking, vital to detecting and tracking pirates on small, fast boats. The result is more accurate data about risks that may lurk on the high seas.

That makes ships safer – and Hollywood more reliant on works of fictional pirates – rather than real ones, for inspiration.