Contraband On Board

The U.S. government's recently enacted Secure Freight Initiative is one of several proposals to inspect cargo at foreign ports before it's shipped to the United States. As part of this initiative Congress has asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to assess the feasibility for scanning 100% of inbound cargo to the United States.

Today, both high- and low-tech solutions can be used to increase the safety and security of freight, and intercept illegal cargo. Regardless of the technology, one major limiting factor for governmental agencies in inspection and monitoring all inbound shipments is the sheer amount of resources required—i.e., people—to do an effective job.

At the high end of the security inspection scale are tools like those offered by America Science and Engineering, Inc. (AS&E, www.as-e.com), located in Billerica, Mass. AS&E's systems can inspect cars, vans and trucks at border crossings, as well as palletized cargo, and air and sea cargo containers without disrupting the flow of commerce.

Of its three primary products the Z Backscatter X-ray Van is AS&E's bestselling cargo and vehicle inspection system. Joe Reiss, the company's v.p. marketing, says that while the company has sold a number of the vans to the military, some of the largest customs agencies in the world have purchased them as well. Reasons for the equipment's popularity are its ease of deployment and operation, and its ability to inspect a wide range of cargo.

Z Backscatter X-ray technology is exclusive to AS&E. Twenty years ago the company recognized that when an object is subjected to X-rays, some of them scatter off the object, Reiss explains. AS&E invented a way to collect those scattered X-rays and generate an image based on them.

"What's interesting about it," says Reiss, "is that a lot of the materials governmental agencies are concerned about happen to scatter X-rays to a very high degree. Backscatter works very well on organic materials—things made from hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and so forth—because those materials tend to scatter X-rays much more so than steel does or heavier non-organic materials. Whether it's explosive material or stow-aways or alcohol or cigarettes, if you're a Customs official, all of those things are made up of organic compounds and tend to scatter X-rays."

AS&E's Z Portal System offers the ability to look at the contents of a truck or cargo container from three different sides: left, right and top down. At the lower end of AS&E offerings is its OmniView Relocatable Gantry System, most recently purchased by NATO. The gantry system moves on rails past stationary vehicles and cargo. It is bi-directional, allowing for throughput of about two trucks per scan, or 24 trucks per hour.

AS&E is in a DHS program that will provide for conventional inspection of cargo, such as smuggled narcotics, but will also supply the ability to automatically find nuclear materials or shielding materials that may be concealed within cargo.

Moving from looking inside to viewing from the outside, the Globalstar low earth orbit mobile satellite system provides one-way communication and tracking of fixed and mobile assets, such as cargo containers, refrigerated and dry van trailers and railcars. The one-way communication helps keep unit costs down while delivering a relatively long battery life, particularly on assets that offer no external power.

Located just 15 minutes from the port, Houston, Tex.-based Robert's Logistics (www.robertslogistics.com) uses such technology for its clients that include Siemens, Westinghouse and General Electric. "The bulk of our business today is either providing Global Positioning System (GPS) as a service or selling a product that uses it," says Bob Jansen, the company owner.

Robert's Logistics provides international and domestic transportation, chiefly for oversized cargo. Jansen observes that a lot of freight that the big oil companies are moving to the Middle East these days includes GPS on all of their equipment.

Robert's uses AXTracker MMT asset tracking devices from Axonn (Covington, La., www.axonn.com) that offers place-and-play functionality. The units have a 4- by 12- by 1-inch profile and attach with double-sided adhesive tape, industrial cement or screws. They have a 7-year battery life.

"We've used [Axonn technology] on all sorts of assets including rail cars and barges," says Jansen. "Usually the barges are moving bigger equipment to job sites. These are turbines that cost $20 million, or $18-million generators. Customers want to know exactly were that unit is."

Axonn programs each unit to provide messaging to the parameters chosen by the customer. These might include monitoring of temperature or a remote door opening on a trailer or container. Once programmed the units are sent to the customer for installation. Newer units now have a RF chip that permits them to be remotely programmed.

"Security is extremely important," says Jansen. "Clients have to log in with a password. They'll get their normal messages, maybe giving its position every 30 minutes or so. As the unit moves from a geo fence, there will be an override on the sensor and a message will be sent to that effect."

A significant cooperative project is currently underway to track cargo containers from Europe to the United States using satellite and cellular technology. Since the cargo is shipments from Heineken, the project is called the "Beer Living Lab." The ultimate goal is to have a paperless system that will achieve faster product delivery at less cost.

In addition to Heineken, primary participants include IBM with its Secure Trade Lane software, Safmarine, an international shipping firm, and Vrije University Amsterdam. Also working on the project are Dutch Customs and Taxes, U.K. Customs and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Dr. Yao-Hua Tan, professor of electronic business at VU Amsterdam, is coordinating the project. Around Thanksgiving, Safmarine began shipping containers of beer from the Netherlands, through Dutch Customs, to Heineken distribution centers in England and the United States. Almost instantly there were some interesting results.

"Heineken has very advanced supply chain management and had an arrangement with their carrier that it would immediately transport their containers straight from the production plant to the Port of Rotterdam." says Tan. "With the first container it was discovered that actually the container didn't go directly from the plant to Rotterdam, but rather it was stored somewhere else for an entire night. It was quite insightful for Heineken."

Tan says the Dutch tax authority is interested in the project since it is in line with some internal objectives, including forming partnerships between the tax office and commercial companies.

"Dutch Tax invited Heineken to participate," says Tan. "Initially Heineken was a bit hesitant since they are already in C-TPAT. They saw the project as similar, so there would be no need to participate. But as they became more involved, they came to realize that this technology is much more advanced than the RFID technology used in their C-TPAT project of three or four years ago."

IBM reports that the project's service-oriented architecture (SOA) is based on its WebSphere platform. It leverages the EPCglobal network and Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) standards. Rather than building and maintaining a large central database, distributed data sources are linked and share information in real time between Heineken, Safmarine and customs authorities in the Netherlands, England and the United States.

This Z Backscatter image displays organic materials with photo-like clarity. Z Backscatter can uniquely detect low-density, organic materials in complex cargo.


Z Portal's three-sided Z Backscatter provides material discrimination and high-quality, photo-like images, highlighting organic materials such as explosives, drugs, and stowaways.


The OmniView gantry X-ray system offers multiple internal views.


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