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Cargo Screening

Screening and inspecting all of the vast amount of goods and other shipments coming into the United States, whether for contraband or nuclear and other potential terrorist threats, was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission and implemented by law by U.S. policymakers. That effort remains a top homeland and national security imperative today.

“Our nation must increase scanning of, and security measures surrounding, cargo headed to the United States,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement prepared exclusively for Border Security & Emergency Preparedness. “In order to make us all safer, we need to do more to achieve full scanning of cargo bound for our country and we should not wait to impose these procedures until it is too late. We have made some improvement over the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go.” 

Ensuring that happens—whether the cargo arrives via shipping container, rail, land border crossing or other means—is a massive undertaking which can present a variety of challenges, according to the manufacturers who provide high-tech scanning equipment to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other authorities who carry out the job on a day-to-day basis.

“What we are hearing again and again, certainly in the U.S., is that the solutions have to be operationally effective. They have to help the government produce measurable results,” said Andrew Goldsmith, vice president of global marketing at Rapiscan Systems, a Torrance, Calif.-based provider of screening systems and services. “They have to be designed in such a way that they can be part of a larger, more intelligent security system. They have to be able to integrate, for example, with other surveillance sensors, whether that’s infrared systems or [closed-circuit television systems].”

This “data fusion,” or combining cargo inspection images with other related information, is a growing trend, the manufacturers said.

Rapiscan Systems, for instance, has developed tools that enable operators to very quickly be able to see the X-ray image of whatever’s being screened, side by side with information from other relevant databases, Goldsmith said.

“Often, an inspector will want to be able to compare what’s on the manifest, or declared information, with the actual image of what’s scanned. If you see on the manifest that they are declaring a truck full of flowers, and it looks like they’ve got electronic parts or something else, you might have an issue” which needs further inspection, he explained.

Similarly, there’s a lot of interest in integrating radiation detection systems with cargo security, Goldsmith said.

“We have a whole product line of radiation detection systems, and we have successfully integrated that capability with our cargo-screening capabilities. You can not only take an X-ray image of a container, but you can also do some analysis to see if there any potential radioactive materials,” he said.

Increasing Efficiencies

Meeting the security requirements in a highly efficient manner is a top concern for screening authorities—and the companies who supply the screening equipment, the manufacturers said.

“We try to, obviously, meet the threat-detection requirements, or the compliance requirements, if you will, if you’re a customs agency. We understand those are very important. But we also are very, very attuned to the operational needs, the business needs of our customers,” Goldsmith said. “Even if it’s a border crossing and it’s operated by Customs and Border Protection, they need to make sure legitimate commerce and legitimate people coming across the border aren’t impeded by security operations unnecessarily. We focus a lot on things like throughput.”

Authorities also have to accomplish their screening while getting squeezed by resource constraints—such as limited budgets and staff, according to Tim Norton, regional director for cargo inspection systems programs and the Americas market at Smiths Detection, a maker of cargo and other screening equipment headquartered in the United Kingdom.

“The efficiency of processing a scan is the element that’s not so much advertised or talked about, but it is always the element which we discuss when we work with the clients and their needs. People have shrinking budgets, they have fewer persons to be able to operate the systems—so how can we greatly improve the efficiency of the scan event for them? That’s the first and foremost thing that we cross paths with today,” Norton said.

The goal becomes how to generate more scans in a given period of use, with fewer numbers of staff, particularly as it requires significant training of the operators to run the scanning equipment—and the scanning authorities can experience significant turnover of these operators, Norton said.

According to Norton, two people can manage the equipment during an eight-hour shift.

Rapiscan is working on R&D designed to more fully automate the screening and detection process with tools that help an operator analyze an X-ray image and very quickly flag potential problems—“really automating the inspection process,” Goldsmith said.

“That’s definitely something we’re working on. There’s been a lot of progress, although we can still make more,” he added.

The budget squeeze also has made revenue-compliance—not just security—more of a priority in cargo screening, Goldsmith said.

“Given the revenue challenges of countries around the world, there’s going to be continued emphasis on helping customs agencies prevent smuggling [and] prevent people from not paying the customs duties they’re supposed to,” he said.

Manufacturers provide scanning equipment in a variety of sizes, strengths and configurations, that includes large-scale systems based on high-energy X-rays, which are harmful—and which pose their own problems, the manufacturers said.

8,000-pound Gorilla

The industry is committed to operating these scanning systems in ways which mitigate the radiation and keep people safe, Norton said.

“You see very little in terms of unsafe practices in this business today. But these systems can be the 8,000-pound gorilla in a small space that everybody has to work around,” he said.

That safety involves much shielding and/or creating space between people and the scanning equipment, known as an exclusion zone.

Smiths Detection works closely with clients to create an environment to operate the scanning equipment safely given their particular needs, Norton said.

“Do they have a small exclusion zone requirement? Usually, the smaller they ask for, the more concrete or more mitigation of the radiation is required,” he said. “We have some systems that use concrete shielding doors—that’s an element of challenge because they still want the scan event to be, typically, less than two minutes. You’ve got big doors opening and closing on a regular basis in a given hour of operation.”

Rapiscan Systems, too, is working on new technologies to “significantly reduce” the exclusion zones required, said Goldsmith. “That’s very important because ports, for example, or border crossings are very space-constrained,” he said, adding that progress should be made over the next one to three years.

To deal with these kinds of constraints, Norton said he expects to see more use of what he called a layered approach to cargo screening, in which a particular point-of-entry from one country to another may be anchored by one or two high-energy systems, depending on the potential volume. Other tools will come into play to help support that, he said, such as low- and medium-energy systems—sometimes mobile system that can be set up for a given mission one day on part of the property and move to another location on another day.

Another benefit to changing screening and inspection procedures on a regular basis, Norton added, is that it keeps “the bad guys on edge, because there’s never the same process twice.”

Screening By Cosmic Ray Flux

While most screening systems rely on X-rays to scan cargo, Decision Sciences International, based just outside Washington, D.C., is pioneering an entirely new technology that uses the “naturally occurring cosmic ray flux” to scan containers and vehicles, said company President and Chief Executive Officer Stanton Sloane.

The Decision Sciences technology uses electrons and muons—a more exotic particle similar to electrons—to help authorities inspect cargo.

“The uniqueness of it derives from the fact the muons that are created in the cosmic ray flux are very penetrating. The system is very suitable for shielded nuclear threats, because it will look through lead and steel and other types of shielding,” Sloane said.

The technology originally developed at the federal Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and private investors funded its further development, he said.

Decision Sciences has an operational system in the Bahamas, and is testing its technology with the U.S. government, Sloane said. “We have what I would describe as our initial, full-scale operational system ready to take orders for it,” he added.

The Decision Sciences contract with the U.S. government contract runs through the end of the year, Sloane said. “We have several other proposals underway, so it’s quite conceivable that we’ll have systems in production before the government gets done with their testing,” he added.

The technology is very new, Sloane said. “It’s never been done before. Until August 2011, it had never been demonstrated as an operational-type capability.”

Because it can scan through lead and other shielding, the Decision Sciences system has advantages over both conventional radiation detection and X-ray screening systems, Sloane said.

“Both of those have their limitations. We do the radiation detection job, and we do the imaging—or the non-intrusive inspection—job. We don’t suffer from masking and the other limitations. Muon flux comes down from the sky, [and] comes from all angles,” he said.

The Decision Sciences system works by tomography, similar to the kind of scanning performed by medical systems, Sloane said. “If you’re looking for shielded threats, this is really the only system that will see through shielding to determine if there’s a threat there,” he added.

The scanning system can be made to be as small or large as the customer requires, Sloane said.

The system in the Bahamas is sized to screen tractor trailers and 40-foot-high shipping containers, he said.

“It’s big enough to accommodate that whole rig. You drive the rig into the detector and do your scanning that way. The machine is very scalable, however. If you wanted a smaller machine to look at packages going onto airplanes, then it would be a very small system. It scales up or down,” he said. “It’s a very simple physical machine—the complexity of this machine is in the software. The physical machine is aluminum tubing, essentially, so you can make it as big or small as you want.”

Further, Sloane said, Decision Sciences system is “completely passive” and does not emit harmful radiation.

“We’re just using the radiation that Mother Nature provides in the upper atmosphere. It is completely safe. You don’t have to worry about people, animals, food—nothing. We don’t irradiate anything,” he said. “Operationally, that means you don’t have stand-off distances, you don’t have to take containers down to the other end of the port to X-ray them, you don’t have to put it where there’s no people. You can put it wherever you want.”

It’s also “very simple, very reliable, [and] easy to operate,” Sloane said.

“It’s an automatic system. If there’s a nuclear threat present, the operator gets a red light. If there’s no threat present, he gets a green light,” he said. “It doesn’t require image interpretation [or] a lot of training. It doesn’t suffer from the interpretation errors you get from other types of systems.” ♦

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