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GE Tests 'Wired' Shipping Containers To Combat Terrorism Threat

GE and partner companies believe containers with sensors that warn of tampering would make smuggling of weapons by terrorists less likely.
Each year, more than 9 million freight containers arrive at U.S. ports to quench Americans' appetite for imported goods--and carry with them concerns that container security could be one of our weakest links in the global effort to prevent terrorism. An international group of companies Wednesday introduced a "smart" container featuring an integrated security sensor the group hopes eventually will create smoother and safer sailing for goods worldwide.

Little has changed over the past several decades in the way these containers are protected from terrorist penetration or theft, but tests such as this suggest post-9/11 efforts to improve security are beginning to bear fruit.

Between Sept. 28 and Dec. 13, GE Security, part of General Electric's infrastructure division, along with Unisys and China International Marine Containers (CIMC), tested new "tamper-evident secure container" technology by sending shipments of GE products packed in 18 of the experimental freight containers between Hong Kong and Long Beach, Calif., one of the country's largest ports. An integrated security sensor was attached to the inside wall of each tamper-evident container and armed after the container was packed and sealed with a standard bolt seal.

Twelve of the containers were allowed to pass along the trade route without inspection. Five of the containers were opened along the way as part of the test and properly recorded and reported these intrusions. A sixth container was opened unexpectedly by a customs inspector, but likewise passed the test. This was the first time these tamper-evident containers were tested under actual shipping conditions, the companies say.

Supply-chain security has become critically important to shippers since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and this tamper-evident secure container is an important solution to that, says David Wong, CIMC's general manager for R&D, in an E-mail interview.

Security experts are worried that terrorists could access containers to smuggle goods into the country, ranging from nuclear or radioactive materials to more conventional explosives or weapons.

CIMC's tamper-evident containers were each fitted with GE Security CommerceGuard sensors for the test. GE Security in September began licensing this sensor technology from Stockholm's All Set Marine Security AB and has begun marketing the technology under CommerceGuard label.

GE Security and CIMC expect during the second half of the year to begin selling freight containers integrated with CommerceGuard sensors. GE Security also will provide a $60 standalone CommerceGuard sensor that can be affixed to the inside of existing containers.

The tamper-evident container is expected to cost about $100 more than a standard container, which runs about $2,000, says James Petrizzi, VP of engineering for GE Security's container security initiative. In both the embedded and standalone versions, the sensor unit consists of the sensor itself, a circuit board, and a 2.4-GHz radio. GE and All Set engineered the sensor device with a lifespan of 10 years, which is the typical life for a container. Information contained in the sensor device is accessed using a special cell phone or a stationary reader with a 30-meter range.

While security is the vendors' main pitch for these containers, they believe it'll deliver added business value by providing more useful information. "We've seen that people will pay for security, but they'd rather pay for productivity gains," Petrizzi says.

Once the container is en route, the sensor could be used to identify the container's location and progress and alert wireless readers if and when the container is opened. Customs officials could use a wireless device of their own to arm and disarm the sensor without triggering an alert to the shipper or manufacturer.

The sensor's job is to provide authorized parties with its ID number and the container ID number, and to indicate whether the container has been opened. Although the sensor doesn't store logistical information, the positioning of multiple sensors throughout a shipping route would provide data regarding where the container has been.

"The primary function of the test was to figure out if the container had been opened, but I don't want to minimize the logistical part," says Randy Koch, principal for Unisys supply chain and digital integration.

The sensor-embedded container provides layers of security, which is a concept that's relatively new to the shipping industry, given that most containers being used weren't designed with security in mind, says Walt Dixon, project leader for port and cargo security with GE's Global Research Center.

Container security has come to the fore in the years following 9/11. But as recent labor problems that led to slowdowns at the Long Beach port showed, the country's dependence on foreign goods means such shipping is vital to the economy, Dixon says. "The government is very sensitive to business and not looking to disrupt the flow of commerce," he says.

Although GE and Unisys conducted their test privately, many of the post-9/11 port-security initiatives have taken place on the government's dime. The Homeland Security Department has channeled about $58 million into Operation Safe Commerce, a program initiated in November 2002 by the Transportation Department and the U.S. Customs Service to fund business initiatives designed to improve security for container cargo moving throughout the international transportation system.

One of the government's strategies is to establish a "green lanes" program that expedites the passage of secure cargo. As envisioned by Homeland Security, a green lane would operate something like automated toll-collection systems on highways. A green lane in a seaport would be authorized only for secure containers whose location could be tracked. "This is a benefit to shippers because it avoids delays in shipping, which could have a pretty big impact on your bottom line," Dixon says.

Another strategy is the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program. C-TPAT participants are up to eight times less likely to have their containers inspected, Dixon says. None of these ideas has been pushed on the shipping industry, however. A number of companies in the shipping industry are waiting to see what the government's security requirements will be, Petrizzi says.

The shipping industry isn't ready for mass production and deployment of tamper-evident containers, and adoption is likely to come slowly. Containers will hit the market later this year, but carriers and manufacturers tend to replace only about 10% of their containers annually. With anywhere between 16 million and 19 million containers in use today, full turnover could take another decade. As a result, implementation of the standalone sensor is much more likely to have a more immediate impact.

"Now we have gone through the development stage including design and testing, and we consider the TESC product mature [enough] to be introduced to U.S. authorities and our customers," Wong says by E-mail. He added that CIMC is also in the process of working out a commercialization agreement with GE soon.