GE completes trial of smart shipping containers

Secure containers will detect unauthorized breach of doors

In an effort to shore up a huge security issue in international trade, General Electric announced today it has completed commercial field testing of its Tamper Evident Secure Container (TESC)  initiative. GE worked closely on the project with Unisys, as the systems integrator and CIMC (China International Marine Containers), the world's large manufacturer of shipping containers.

In its initial deployment, GE designed both a mechanical and electronic solution for detecting if a container door has been tampered with after it has been sealed for shipping.

The mechanical enhancements to the door lock and the electronic sensor are targeted at both new containers but can also be retrofitted on existing containers, of which there are 16 million currently in use, according to Walt Dixon, project leader for port and cargo security at GE Global Research Center.

Although container doors use seals that are broken when the door is opened, at the present time the door handle can be removed without breaking the seal by removing the rivets that hold the entire door handle assembly. The mechanical improvement would require a seal to be cut even if the entire handle was removed.

The electronic solution uses a sensor. After a container has been loaded, doors are closed and the sensor is armed. Handheld and stationary readers, depending on local requirements, can query the sensor when it is loaded onto a ship, during transit, when it arrives at a port, and when it is unloaded.

"Anyplace a container passes through a gate, loaded on or off a ship, authorized people can see the status and see when it is breached. This is hooked up through the Internet," said Jim Petrizzi, vice president of engineering at GE Security Monitored Solutions.

The readers are either hardwired through Ethernet or wirelessly connected over GPRS and piped back to a datacenter where alerts can also be sent to first responders within each port.

While the sensor currently only monitors for unauthorized access to the container through the door, other sensors are in the works, according to Dixon. "The government has a wish list of what they would like to see monitored," said Dixon. After door sensors, the next two priorities for the government are a sensor to monitor all six sides of a container for someone cutting holes in the container and a sensor to detect people inside the container.

Randy Koch, practice director at Unisys, said Unisys has looked at many types of sensors for cargo security.

"We tested biosensors and GPS, for example. They are not viable for today's needs from a technology or business standpoint," Koch said.

The sensors from GE also include an integration hub for future technologies. The GE sensor has nine ports that can be used to plug in other devices, said Koch.

The TESC initiative is just one of many responses to guidelines from the Custom Trade-Partnership Against Terrorism (CT-PAT), a partnership between United States Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, and the trade community.

A voluntary consortium of companies, CT-PAT hopes to encourage the use of technology to secure cargo sent over land and sea by offering incentives to those importers who comply with CT-PAT guidelines.

Petrizzi said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner is proposing to create a so-called "green lane" for shippers. "To qualify for green lane treatment you will need to do three things: be a CT-PAT member in good standing, ship only through designated secure ports, and use an approved container security device," said Petrizzi.

Those importers that do qualify will receive expedited processing through the U.S. ports.

Petrizzi pointed out that a two-day increase in holding inventory due to delay at the ports costs trading partners $50 billion to $80 billion annually.

CT-PAT is voluntary in order to encourage non-U.S. shippers to comply with U.S. security needs, added Petrizzi.

Hardware costs for creating smart containers vary but most industry analysts say it will increase the price of a container by about $50 and the cost of shipping a single container by abut $10.

The completion of the field test by GE does not, however, mean smart containers will be available anytime soon. Companies are still awaiting final guidelines from CT-PAT government officials.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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