Sensors Can Help Monitor Port Cargo

A small percentage of "smart" containers outfitted with sensors that could monitor other nearby cargo could help improve security at U.S. ports, according to a technology consulting firm.

A simulation of Accenture Technology Labs' "cargo monitoring" system yesterday showed how even a small percentage of containers equipped with radiation sensors could monitor a larger cargo shipment. If a sensor picked up abnormal radiation levels, it would immediately raise the threat level of all nearby containers, said Andrew Fano, research director for the project.

"We're not claiming to solve the cargo security problem," Mr. Fano said at Accenture's Reston office, noting that the detection system would fill one piece of a much larger puzzle.

As an example, if a container showed up on numerous radiation sensor readings, public- and private-sector security officials could gather data on the container's port of origin, the carrier and other information to determine the nature of the threat, he said.

Securing the 16 million containers that arrive annually at U.S. ports has become a hot-button issue as Congress considers DP World's planned acquisition of Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which would give the United Arab Emirates-owned company control over some operations at six major U.S. ports.

Currently, about 5 percent of containers entering the U.S. are inspected. Using a sensor range of 10 feet in simulations, the Accenture system had an 80 percent success rate with sensors on 5 percent of the containers, according to company officials.

But Mr. Fano stressed that those numbers could shift dramatically based on factors such as which sensors are used, what they are attempting to detect, the size of the port and the cargo routes.

Attempting to coordinate among federal agencies, port authorities and the shipping companies is another factor.

"Without a mandate, shippers will not take on the economic burden," said Scott Rose, managing partner of the Accenture Technology Labs in Chicago, who acknowledged that millions of dollars are needed to put the system in place.

The prototype used a small number of sensors to transmit information back and forth and eventually back to the home network with multiple observations along the way. A pre-existing infrastructure is not required, and even if one sensor fails, the system continues to operate.

"It doesn't rely on bottlenecks or choke points to sense or observe the threat," Mr. Rose said.

"ADT on steroids is what this thing is," said Dan Goure, referring to the popular home security system. But those systems can malfunction and require a technician to fix them.

Having a staff of technicians to fix cargo-monitoring sensors would add even more money to an already pricey endeavor, said Mr. Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington pro-business think tank that monitors defense and homeland-security issues.

In addition to high costs, the proposed system would need to be tested in actual environments, Mr. Goure said. Other potential stumbling blocks include potentially high false alarm rates and system security to avoid hoaxes or blocks.

[Washington Times, The (KRT) -- 03/01/06]

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