Nanotechnology has been touted in recent years for its many remarkable qualities. Now, the miracle material is about to take on a new role-fighting pirates who plunder cargo ships on the high seas. A new unmanned surface vessel called the Piranha uses nanotechnology-enhanced carbon fiber to be super lightweight and nimble.

Nanotechnology has been touted in recent years for its many remarkable qualities. Now, the miracle material is about to take on a new role-fighting pirates who plunder cargo ships in places such as the coast of Somalia and the Strait of Malacca.

While researching our April article on unmanned military vehicles, I came across several examples of cutting-edge products where nanotechnology plays a key behind-the-scenes role. A great example of this is the Piranha unmanned surface vessel (USV). It’s a composite boat that’s currently being developed for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard by engineers at Zyvex Performance Materials (ZPM).

When it rolls off an assembly line near Seattle this spring, the Piranha will be the largest ship ever built from nano-enhanced materials. It is constructed with Arovex, ZPM’s proprietary nanotube-reinforced carbon fiber prepreg. The 5th generation material is stronger and stiffer than conventional carbon fiber.

“The Piranha is unique because of the materials it is made of,” says Mike Nemeth, commercial and defense applications engineer at ZPM. “The materials allow it to be a generation ahead of any other composite, and two generations ahead of an aluminum boat. It has far more range and payload carrying ability, as it has lower structural and propulsion needs.”

The Piranha consists of 11 major structural components, including a one-piece hull, a two-piece deck, two watertight bulkheads, three stringers and several ring frames. The deck, bulkheads and frames are attached with Epovex, a carbon nanotube-enhanced epoxy that is also used by powerboat manufacturers.

Nanotechnology allows the 54-foot-long Piranha to weigh only 8,000 pounds and carry up to 15,000 pounds of payload more than 2,500 miles. According to Nemeth, the boat will have triple the payload capacity and ten times the range of existing USVs.

Designed by ZPM’s Advanced Composites Solutions team, the Piranha can be equipped with armament options such as stabilized machine guns, lightweight torpedoes and over-the-horizon missiles. Future versions will leverage the ship’s reconfigurable payload capacity for a wide range of missions, including anti-piracy.

“The Piranha is designed to perform a wide variety of missions like anti-piracy, search and rescue, submarine hunting and harbor patrol,” says Russell Belden, director of the Piranha program and vice president of Advanced Composite Solutions. “Since the Piranha is an unmanned surface vessel, it will reduce the risk to the warfighter and provide greater capability for those missions at a dramatically lower cost. This craft provides real opportunity to use unmanned vessels as a true force multiplier.”

“The US Navy and Coast Guard are facing a looming budgetary crisis with little relief in sight,” adds James Hasik, principal at Hasik Analytic, a defense industry consulting firm that has been working with ZPM to refine the Piranha’s operational concept and marketability to military customers. “A cost-effective unmanned vessel like the Piranha, with its range and payload, could provide the numbers and capabilities to significantly augment the current fleets, and help to control the seas from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa.”

In particular, Hasik says the Piranha could be a very useful tool for combating modern-day piracy. According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks on cargo ships are have been steadily increasing in recent years.

In 2009, 153 vessels were boarded, 49 vessels were hijacked and 120 vessels were fired upon. In addition, there were 84 attempted attacks. A total of 1,052 crew members were taken hostage. Sixty eight crew were injured in the various incidents and eight crew killed.

The Piranha is capable of cruising long distances to escort single ships or convoys. It can also use advanced sensors and networked satellite or terrestrial communications to detect pirates before they can threaten shipping lanes.

The Piranha is scheduled to undergo sea trials this summer. After that, pirates may have to look for another occupation.