cargo-scanning technology advances on various fronts

With almost 90 per cent of imported and exported goods making their way around the world in some 500 million shipping containers annually, the challenge of ensuring that only legitimate shipments are received at ports is enormous.


Huge progress has been made in terms of shippers relating detailed cargo manifests before a vessel sets off and cargo seals protect against tampering of inspected containers, but vigilance remains essential as a preventive measure.

Upon the U.S. 9/11 Commission’s urging, the U.S. Congress has called for all seaborne containers to be scanned. It’s a tall order. Only a small percentage of the 15 million sealed containers arriving at U.S. seaports yearly are now scanned for threats. The requirement will definitely affect Canada which has been working with the U.S. to simplify and speed up cargo movement by scanning containers once for both countries.

The challenge until now has been that existing technology – mainly Geiger counters and Gamma rays– cannot penetrate the dense substances (such as concrete and tungsten) used to contain and shield nuclear or radiological materials. The other problem is that radiation-based technology cannot be used to scan food, plant or animal cargo.

Radiation-free equipment

Now a new technology initially conceived at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2005 and since developed in partnership with the private sector promises to identify even densely shielded threats without the use of radiation. It also offers to keep cargo traffic moving by taking only 30 seconds on average to scan a typical 40-foot shipping container.

The Multi-Mode Passive Detection System uses a software
that is able to detect "muons".

The Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS), presented by Decision Sciences International Corporation (DSIC), operates on a unique principle. “We’ve developed software to track cosmic ray particles called muons that naturally occur in the upper atmosphere and harmlessly fall to Earth,” explains Stanton Sloane, DSIC’s CEO. “These high-energy muons penetrate everything – including the concrete, tungsten or other dense materials used to hide uranium or plutonium – and it’s the specific angles at which they penetrate dense materials that enables our system to detect nuclear and radiological threats automatically.”

The system provides the operator either a green-light (clear) or a red-light (threat present) indication, which helps expedite cargo scanning by removing the need for onscreen content observation and the related judgment calls. If the system alerts, it then uses its muon-tracking capabilities to create a 3-D image of the threat to make it easier to locate, assess and remove.

Fully scalable, the scanners can be configured as small package scanners, or large enough to scan loaded tractor-trailers. “The scanner is relatively simple,” Sloane adds. “It’s the software that really does the work.” While the cost varies depending on the required size and configurations, it’s comparable to X-ray technology.

A system has been operational at the Freeport Container Terminal’s customs booth in the Bahamas since 2012 with discussions soon expected to result in several other sales. “Because there’s no radiation use, the scanner can be set up wherever people are working on some other process required for cargo clearance,” Sloane says. “And it’s safe to use on food, plants and animals.”

The next phase nearing completion will enable the new technology to also detect other contraband. “By combining the information from penetrating muons with the electrons that are also created by cosmic rays in the atmosphere but can’t go through everything, we’re able to identify not only nuclear/radiological materials, but also drugs, chemicals and explosives,” Sloane says. “We’ve just completed some testing with the U.S. Department of Defense and expect to roll out the new software that enables this at Freeport within the next few months.”

Transshipment monitoring

Meanwhile, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has completed testing on a huge radiation-based scanner that will make it more difficult to smuggle radiological materials as cargo is being transferred from one ship to another.

The Mobile Radiation Detection and Identification System (MRDIS) is “big enough for a truck carrying shipping containers to pass through” easily on its way to a second vessel, says Greg Stihel, a member of the technical staff at Sandia’s Systems & Mission Assurance Department.

Being able to simply drive the cargo through the scanner avoids costly delays. Sandia engineers came up with the system in response to NNSA’s Second Line of Defence recommendations to have transshipment containers scanned to close a potentially huge security gap.
Two prototypes were developed in 2006 and then field-tested in Oman where port operators helped the engineers to fine-tune the process. NNSA then ordered 12 of the scanners with the first one (a second-generation MRDIS) being produced two years later. The (U.S.) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the Cincinnati firm DRS Technologies have partnered with Sandia on integrating additional requirements.

Operators can sit sideways facing vehicles as they go through the centre of the scanner, which enables them to completely focus their attention on their computer monitor rather than have to either drive or sit in a truck moving back and forth to ensure its full scanning.
The first four MRDIS units were delivered to Panama in November 2012. Another four had their final acceptance testing in Oman last March.

TiaLinx's radio-frequency sensor can detect the slightest
of breathing patterns.


Breath sensors

At TiaLinx, Inc. in Newport Beach, California, the focus is on a radio-frequency sensor that can penetrate steel walls to detect the slightest of breathing patterns. The system can be installed on cranes that load and unload cargo to ensure that no one is inside a container attempting to enter a country for terrorist purposes or as part of a human smuggling attempt.

“TiaLinx is seriously pursuing the development of technologies to protect borders, including the remote screening of cargo containers for human trafficking,” says CEO Fred Mohamadi.

Highly sensitive ultra-wideband radio frequency beams are used to penetrate walls and reflect off a person’s body, capturing any breathing pattern. A cluster of lightweight, wireless sensors can also monitor a queue remotely for extended periods of time and remotely uplink data to a monitoring station as simple as a laptop.

These are only some of the new and evolving technologies helping to make ports and the communities they serve worldwide much safer. As we know, technologic development is a work in progress.