HARTFORD, Conn. -- In its latest move into the homeland security business, General Electric Co. is developing a device designed to prevent terrorists from using cargo containers to carry out a terrorist attack at the nation's ports.
The Fairfield-based conglomerate announced Monday that it has begun field testing a palm-sized wireless instrument designed to detect unauthorized access to shipping containers and monitor the container in transit for signs of intrusion.
``GE's device is definitely addressing a need we have long been aware of and we're looking forward to getting it field tested,'' said Bill Anthony, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. ``The potential benefit is great. It will tell us a lot about where the container has been, whether it's been opened.''
More than 90 percent of all goods moved internationally are carried in containers and about 8 million freight containers arrive at U.S. ports each year. But only a small percentage of those are screened electronically. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials have increasingly worried that cargo containers could be used to smuggle terrorists or their weapons.
In March, two Palestinians from Gaza hid in a false compartment of a shipping container, made their way to Israel's Ashdod port and blew themselves up, killing 10 Israelis. Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, an Egyptian man was arrested on terrorism charges after he was found in a shipping container in Italy carrying high-tech equipment.
Homeland Security officials have been looking for ways that shippers could use upgraded technology to ensure containers are not tampered with. Other companies also are working on technology to address the issue.
GE's device, which fastens to the door jamb of containers, is activated with a unique identifier code similar to home alarm systems and indicates when and where the container has been opened since it was initially sealed. If the door to the container is opened without a valid code, the device goes into alarm mode and port authorities are notified.
Many containers now have mechanical seals which can be replaced, making it difficult to detect whether the container has been unlawfully entered, GE officials said.
``I think it's a breakthrough in the sense of reconfiguring existing technology to solve a problem that there is no obvious solution available,'' said Greg Burge, president of networked services for GE's security business.
To be successful, such devices need to be affordable, reliable and quick so they do not disrupt the flow of commerce, officials said.
Anthony said such devices are part of a broader initiative that includes the increased scrutiny of shipments at major ports abroad and the scanning of containers for radiation.
GE's device, which has been tested by the U.S. government and private industry, should be deployed globally by early next year, company officials said. The company expects to use the device internally this year.
``We've been very pleased with the results to date,'' Burge said. ``As one of the world's leading shippers and container lessors, GE has a significant stake in developing and deploying a safe, reliable and cost-effective global solution.''
The device also could help deter theft of goods which amount to about $40 billion annually, GE officials said.
GE planned to announce details of the new product this week at the U.S. Maritime Security Expo in New York. The device was developed by Sweden-based All Set Marine Security AB and enhanced with GE's sensor and software technical, the company said.
GE, which makes everything from lightbulbs and appliances to power turbines and aircraft engines, has been stepping up its security business in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The new products include an explosives detection scanner that is being tested at airports around the country as well as at the Statute of Liberty.