Smart and semi-smart containers arrive to counter terrorism

The U.S. Bureau of Customs & Border Protection is encouraging companies to use “smart” cargo containers equipped with high-tech devices that detect security threats and warn inspectors of the danger. But officials at shipping companies are skeptical of the technology, saying it is unproven and costly.

“The first issue is to define what a smart container is,” said Alan Hicks, director of development and governmental policy for P&O Nedlloyd Ltd., North America. “A container is not smart. It is a large box. ‘Smart container’ has become sort of a buzzword, without much definition as to what it is and how it works.”

A smart cargo container, with sensors to detect intrusion and radiation, was unveiled at a maritime security conference sponsored by U.S. Customs in New York City at the end of October. The locks and sensors include two-way communications devices that would alert security personnel to the presence of radiation or indications the container had been broken into. With two-way communications, the sensor could be reprogrammed with new data after each voyage.

In November, U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner announced at a Washington, D.C., trade show that the federal department wants shippers to use a less-complicated version of the smart container unveiled in New York. Labeling this container the “smart box,” Bonner said it should include a high-security bolt seal (a low-tech lock already in use by many shippers) and an internal sensor to detect tampering.

Image Credit: Courtesy Savi Technology

Closeup of the Sentinel
Image Credit: Courtesy Savi Technology

A cargo container equipped with a Sentinel intrusion detector and RadRae humidity and radioactivity sensor

Inspectors standing outside the container would use electronic monitoring equipment to read the sensor to determine if the container had been opened after it was sealed.

Nothing prevents shippers creating “an even smarter box that exceeds these minimum standards,” Bonner said.

“Why do we need to do this?” Bonner said at the trade show. “Because the best factory and loading dock security and the best supply chain is of little value if the box is not secure — if a terrorist can simply break open a container in transit and conceal a terrorist weapon, including, potentially, a weapon of mass destruction.”

Bonner’s smart box is not mandatory. It’s part of a larger program started in April 2002, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT). It asks companies to set up procedures voluntarily to make sure their buildings and supply chains are secure from a terrorist attack. By November, there were more than 4,600 companies taking part. Companies in the program get fast-track processing of their goods through Customs. Their containers move through expedited lines — Bonner calls this the “green lane” — that offer simpler, faster inspections.

Not only is the smart box a necessary part of a secure supply chain, Bonner said, “but in the not-too-distant future, I see essentially two types of shipments entering the United States, those that are low-risk and that will speed through the green lane into the U.S. economy — I mean immediate release — and everybody else.”

The smart container demonstrated in New York included three products:

• The Savi Sentinel, which acts as a door sensor and collection point for other sensors in the container; it is made by Savi Technology, of Sunnyvale, Calif.

• The Brooks E-Seal, a door lock working in combination with a sensor to detect intrusions and a two-way communicator to warn of a break-in; the unit is made by E.J. Brooks Co., of Livingston, N.J.

• The RadRae gamma radiation sensor, which uses a lithium-iodide scintillating crystal to pick up radioactive material; it is made by Rae Systems, also of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Other container sensors, not part of this package, can detect hazardous chemicals, while monitoring conditions inside the container, including temperature, humidity, tilt, light, vibration and atmospheric pressure.

The Savi Sentinel acts as a two-way communicator, using a system based on radio frequency identification (RFID). The radio transponder has a range of just over 300 feet, according to Mark Nelson, spokesman for Savi Technology. Workers in the supply chain, using a portable or a fixed reader, can pick up data collected by the sensors about the cargo container, whether it has been disturbed, and the date and time of the disturbance.

The readers will also pick up more basic information, which can be converted into a form that can be viewed on the Internet through a secure, encrypted system, Nelson said. Depending on the volume of orders, the Savi Sentinel would cost about $20.

The information from these sensors can only be transmitted to the hardware readers, so the cargo container can only be checked on land. The cargo would be checked at the consolidation center, at the gate of the marine terminal when it entered, at the staging area of the marine terminal and at the dock where the container is loaded aboard the ship, Nelson said.

A second round of readings would take place when the container was unloaded from the ship. The sensors would be read at the port of entry, at the staging grounds, at the gate of the marine terminal and at the deconsolidation center. In addition, those using this system would have to set up a computer network to process and distribute the information gathered from the electronic seals and sensors.

The issue of cargo container security has become extremely important since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2001, U.S. Customs processed more than 214,000 vessels and 5.7 million sea containers, according to the bureau. Worldwide, there are more than 11 million cargo containers. Before the terrorist attacks, only 2 percent of cargo coming into the United States was physically inspected by customs officials.

Despite the publicity surrounding the smart cargo container, shipping officials and maritime security experts say the new technology raises more questions than it answers.

One question is: Who has access to the information generated by this new, smart technology? “A shipper is not going to be at all interested in having precise details of its cargo available in a system where its competitors and a whole lot of other people can see it,” said Chris Cook, of the World Shipping Council, which represents more than 40 liner shipping companies.

There’s also no agreement about what constitutes the most effective technology for container security. “There’s all kinds of warring technologies out there,” he said. “What we’d like is some uniform, international rules on this. Because containers do not flow in closed loops.”

Cook has other questions. Will the technology work in all the different sites around the world where containers are used? Does the technology work when a container is at the bottom of a ship’s hold?

“What are the operational and informational ramifications of this device?” he said.

Cook noted that smart technology devices are very complicated and may be prone to performance problems. “These things aren’t very well tested in a commercial environment,” he said.

In the effort to address port and container security, government officials have overlooked the original stuffer of the container, according to Dennis L. Bryant, an expert on maritime law and senior counsel at the New York law firm Holland & Knight. “I’m still very concerned that the government has not focused on the real problem, which is what goes into the container,” he said.

It makes no difference if carriers are required to submit a cargo manifest 24 hours ahead of time (as now required by U.S. Customs), since the carrier does not really know what’s in the container, only what’s on the manifest.

“There are some very good devices out there for measuring whether the container has been intruded into during its transit,” Bryant said. “But that assumes that nothing bad was put into it originally. Well, that’s a pretty big assumption. And we’re just taking it on faith that the original stuffer is not a terrorist.”

Hicks, of P&O Nedlloyd, which is part of C-TPAT, said that low-technology solutions should be considered to make containers more secure. For the past three years, the company has voluntarily installed high-security bolt seals on virtually all of its containers. Another example, Hicks said, involves efforts by U.S. Customs and shippers to devise a better place to put the seals on containers. That work springs from the consensus that seals in their current location are easy to tamper with.

Hicks believes his industry has been proactive on security issues, and that “we’re just trying to come up with what is practical and pays a dividend for a reasonable cost.”

Cost could be the determining factor. “You can make the containers extremely secure, but then the containers become more expensive than the contents,” Bryant said. “That’s the issue: How much security do you want to buy?”

By Professional Mariner Staff