Ships plying the waters where piracy is a danger, such as the coast of Somalia or Southeast Asia, may soon have a laser weapon - a non-lethal one -- to defend themselves with.

Developed by BAE Systems, the laser beam isn't intense enough to damage anything - not even the eye. But aimed at a pirate vessel it does show that they have been seen at distances up to 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles). Usually, that might drive them off, as a big part of a pirate attack is the element of surprise.

At closer distances, the laser would disorient people, making it much harder to take aim with a weapon. The effect is similar to when a fighter pilot attacks from the direction of the sun. The glare from the laser is intense enough to make it impossible to aim weapons like AK47s or RPGs, but doesn't have a permanent effect, said Roy Evans, BAE Systems capability technology lead for laser photonic systems, in a statement.

Really, it might buy the ship time until help can arrive, said Jo Fry, a BAE spokesperson.

The International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB) says piracy worldwide is on the rise, with 430 attacks worldwide reported last year, up from 406 in 2009. While ships could post armed guards, that can be an expensive proposition and cause other problems. Of the pirate attacks last year, 210 were reported in Somalia. Somali pirates currently hold 25 vessels and 586 hostages.

The researchers developed a custom neodymium yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG) laser. By using targeting systems and changing beam patterns, the distraction effect can be made more pronounced and be used against multiple targets. Fitted on a commercial ship, the laser could use its own targeting capability or integrate with ship radar and sensor systems to control the direction and power of the beam. It could work semi-autonomously and include security features to ensure it could not be used by pirates if they boarded the ship.

Fry said that the system is still in the developmental stages, so it will be some time before it appears on any commercial ships, which will be the customer base.
In a statement, Bryan Hore, BAE Systems business development manager and the lead for the anti-piracy program, said, The aim of the laser distraction project is now to develop a non-lethal deterrent to pirates, which has no lasting effects, which can work in a maritime environment, be operated by the crew at no risk, and be cost effective.

The laser has been tested on land in a variety of weather conditions. Evans said, We successfully showed that the laser works not just during the night, but also in full daylight. But, there are many more requirements to meet before placing a non-lethal laser weapon on commercial ships.