EUROPEAN scientists believe they are ahead of their opposite numbers in the US in developing a device that would satisfy Washington's quest to check every container arriving in the country, while also cracking down on cargo theft.
No system can be fully effective until a global standard is agreed, but here too events are moving quickly.
Thales Research Technology (UK) is heading a consortium that hopes to publish its proposal on the standardisation of readers for suitably adapted containers next month, once permission has been given by the European Commission, which is sponsoring and partially financing the project.
The recommendations will then be submitted to the International Organisation for Standardisation for validation.
However, Thales R&T has already produced a small and easily fitted device that is ready to go into production, and which would allow cargo owners and other authorised parties to monitor a container from the moment contents are loaded until the point of delivery.
Michael Naylor, technical manger at Thales R&T, believes this could go a long way towards meeting proposed requirements for screening 100% of US-bound containers with a minimum of disruption and without the need for massive manpower resources.
Instead of scanning a container at various points during a door-to-door delivery particularly if it is transhipped the box would only have to be screened once, for example, at the load port.
Following that, regular interrogation of the sensors during the journey would quickly spot anything irregular. Otherwise, the container could be discharged without the need for any further security checks.
The container alert is able to generate warnings if, for example, container doors are opened unexpectedly, there is a break-in through the side walls or roof, a deviation from the planned route, cargo tampering, or if the box has been moved into an unauthorised area.
It is also able to distinguish between different types of motion or noises and send a signal in the case of some unexplained event. At times when the container is known to be in a safe environment, the sensors can remain dormant so as to conserve battery power.
If the container is transitting a high-risk area, the device could be programmed to transmit status reports every few minutes.
Thales R&T, part of the Paris-based multinational defence, aerospace and security systems group Thales, is already discussing trials with some shippers of high value merchandise or perishables.
The company is also in contact with shipping lines and container leasing companies about fitting the container alert device, which could cost as little as ?30 apiece and, unlike an electronic seal, is re-usable. Each time, it would be rearmed with a unique number.
Exactly how much is stolen from containers is hard to establish, given the lack of collated data, but one figure cited puts the value at many billions of dollars a year, according to Gary Jordan, a senior engineer at Thales R&T.
Containers are also used by organised crime for smuggling illicit goods across borders and, potentially, by terrorists.
'The container is the weakest point in the supply chain,' Mr Jordan told a presentation on the Thales R&T technology, which has been developed in collaboration with a number of other companies and organisations, including HM Revenue Customs and Imperial College in London.
The next step, however, is to agree common standards for a data reader, such as worldwide radio frequencies.