Ports Spend Millions On New Tech To Protect Borders And Waterways - InformationWeek
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Ports Spend Millions On New Tech To Protect Borders And Waterways

The results of Operation Safe Commerce will be filed to the Homeland Security Department by the end of the year. Port operators hope this report will lead to smooth sailing in what can be a fairly fragile, low-margin business.

Operation Safe Commerce, launched in November 2002 by the Transportation Department and U.S. Customs Service, has provided its three pilot ports with money to test new security techniques and technologies that could improve containerized shipping security. These three ports handle 75% of all containers shipped into the United States. The federal government has since the launch of Operation Safe Commerce awarded $58 million as part of the program. Port of Seattle has received $27.5 million for nine different projects.

As part of Operation Safe Commerce, for example, Seattle has tested vehicle-mounted Vacis gamma-ray imaging technology from Science Applications International Corp. as a means of taking radiographic images of trucks, containers, and other cargo. One of the challenges remains combining this technology with electronic container seals, which are damaged by the radiation emitted by the Vacis system. Other electronic seals were damaged by the harsh ocean-going conditions and salt water.

The no. 1 threat the United States is dealing with is weapons of mass destruction, Elaine Dezenski, director of cargo and trade policy for Homeland Security's Border and Transportation Security Directorate, said earlier this week at a Unisys Corp.-sponsored supply-chain security panel. As a result, Homeland Security is moving toward screening all containers for radioactivity. "It's simply not possible to open every container," Dezenski said. "Supply-chain participants need information early in the process so they can make risk assessments."

For technology to be successful in the shipping environment, it's not only got to be secure, it's got to have the right price tag. Hilden estimates that an electronic container seal can't cost more than $50 to be a feasible wide-scale investment for shipping companies.

Security is a significant concern up and down the supply chain. Any uncertainty about the security of a shipment means shutting down a supply chain, which has an economic impact worldwide, Stephen Flynn, director of the Independent Task Force on Homeland Security Imperatives and a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander, said during the Unisys supply-chain security panel this week.

The American economy got a taste of what it would be like for West Coast ports to shut down in 2002 when the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping companies, locked out dockworkers at the 29 major Pacific ports for 10 days. The work stoppage cost the country's economy an estimated $1 billion daily because cargo never made it past the ports into the train and truck lines that supply the rest of the country.

The resolution of the dockworkers strike actually opened the door for cargo-tracking technology that workers feared would eliminate jobs. "After the strike, port terminal operators were allowed to bring in technology to help move more cargo safely," Hilden says. This technology included electronic container tags and electronic shipping manifests.

Despite Port of Seattle's proactive approach to technology, the port doesn't have the authority to require its shipper clients use any particular technology or adhere to technology standards. "The only thing we can do is relate to different shippers our experiences with the technology and the need for standardized tech," Hilden says. Some shippers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are testing RFID technology use at the container level. "They're just trying out the technology now, but it has the potential to become very important."

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