Six million cargo containers from around the world pass through our nation's seaports every year according to Stephen Flynn, former Coast Guard commander and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of these containers may hold illegal drugs; explosives; chemical, biological, or radiological weapons; and illegal aliens. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unit is charged with the critical task of determining if these items are present in shipping containers. Container inspection must be swift and accurate so port facilities operate efficiently without creating an ever-growing backlog of containers awaiting screening.
Security actually begins hundreds or thousands of miles away from American coasts with the Container Security Initiative (CSI). U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents work with their foreign counterparts to conduct inspections of high-risk cargo containers worldwide at approximately 40 foreign seaports. Inspection occurs before the containers are loaded onto ships bound for the United States.
To speed deployment of technology, whenever possible, it is adapted from other uses. For example, video-equipped submersibles - essentially underwater robots - are used to detect threats under harbor waters, such as explosives attached to ship hulls. These submersibles have been adapted from submersibles developed for other uses, such as ocean fish farming and marine biology research.
The primary need is for methods to rapidly inspect cargo containers for illegal or hazardous contents. The DHS Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL) in Atlantic City, N.J., is focused on meeting this need. Its Container Security Test Bed (CSTB) is an outdoor laboratory allowing researchers from government, academia, and industry to develop ways to detect threats by analyzing the air inside cargo containers. The CSTB handles the containers the same way they would be offloaded from a ship.
The CSTB uses sensors such as gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers originally developed for chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing and for space exploration (such as robot probes that have inspected the surface of Mars). You may have seen carry-on bags being wiped with small swatches of cloth that are then placed into a "black box" for analysis. These sensors can detect trace amounts of explosives, drugs, or other illegal substances. Sensors called Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASP) designed to detect radiation can protect seaports from nuclear threats.
Container inspections must be rapid if ports are to operate efficiently. There are two challenges in developing and using these sensors successfully. The first is getting a representative sample of the air from inside the container to the sensor. This can be done through container air vents. This air sample will then pass through a series of sensors for analysis. The results are transmitted to a remote human inspector for review.
To meet the second challenge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Lincoln Labs developed the CSTB to evaluate sensors under real-world conditions, replicating both rapidly screening items in shipping containers and standard ship unloading operations. Sensors must survive the container being hoisted from the ship, moved over, and lowered - often slammed down - onto the pier. Few crane operators have the deft touch that crane operator Tom Cruise did in the movie "War of the Worlds."
According to U.S. Commissioner of Customs Robert Bonner, just one terrorist incident involving shipping containers could shut down global trade. Customs' top priority is counter-terrorism, Bonner says. Results have been worth the effort. The CBP has successfully warded off terrorist threats.