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Containers with security device

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  • Stephen G. Myers
    Cargo containers sensor says do not disturb NEW YORK CITY -- Millions of cargo containers full of toys, TVs and other consumer products stream into United
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 22, 2005
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      Cargo containers' sensor says 'do not disturb'
      NEW YORK CITY -- Millions of cargo containers full of toys, TVs and other consumer products stream into United States ports each year. But security experts fear the metal boxes could also be used to transport dangerous freight: terrorist weapons, according to this report by Anne Eisenburg published by the New York Times.

      Researchers are working on modifications to the rugged containers, adding electronic monitoring that can keep track of intrusions once the boxes are sealed at a factory and on their way by train, truck and ship.

      General Electric is testing a palm-size security device with a built-in microprocessor and radio. The device, which has been tried out on a handful of containers traveling between China and California, generates a magnetic field.

      If the doors of the container move, the field changes, and the microprocessor keeps track of the disturbance. At a port or loading dock, the containers can be queried by radio, delivering a record of any intrusions.

      "The microprocessor is always monitoring the sensor," said James Petrizzi, a vice president for engineering in General Electric's security business, who helped develop and test the wireless system.

      In trials, the device communicated with fixed dockside readers, as well as with hand-held readers that could communicate wirelessly. "The system creates a large wireless network where we can interrogate the security device on the container," Mr. Petrizzi said. The reader notes the time and date of any incursions since the container was sealed. The communication between the security device and the reader is encrypted.

      A major manufacturer of containers, the China International Marine Containers Group, incorporated the sensor in 18 of its containers as prototypes to use for the General Electric trials.

      "We did the trials to make sure that the container and the electronic pack would not be damaged or give false alarms," said David Wong, chief technical officer at the company, which is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. "It can be operated under the most severe conditions in adverse environments."

      The security devices were originally developed by All Set Marine Security, based in Bromma, Sweden, near Stockholm. All Set is licensing the technology to G.E. In the future, two versions of the monitoring device will be available, ones built into the doors of new containers and ones that can be retrofitted on an interior door post of old containers, said Walt Dixon, project leader for port and cargo security at the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna, N.Y.

      Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on cargo security, said devices like G.E.'s were essential if containers were to be made smarter. Dr. Flynn is a retired commander in the United States Coast Guard.

      There are millions of containers in circulation, he said, any one of which could be used by terrorists as a Trojan horse. "But if I knew a particular container had been tampered with," he said, "I could intercept it without causing problems for everyone else." A suspect container could be identified and isolated for inspection without interrupting regular cargo operations.

      Smart containers would also be important in the aftermath of an attack, he said, for forensic investigation. "If we had an Al Qaeda-style attack at two ports at the same time," he said, "it would create uncertainty about all containers," possibly bringing trade to a standstill. "But if you could go back into the data and find where the boxes came from, you could narrow down the set of problems," he said, without having to close down the whole system.

      General Electric tested the system in the laboratory and at sea. "The freight can be subject to enormous forces," Mr. Dixon said, for example, if the containers are stacked up to eight high on deck and rolling through 40-foot seas. The group tried a number of approaches to sensing whether the container doors were open at sea, including a pressure sensor. But in one storm the container flexed so much that the pressure between the door and the door frame went to zero.

      "So we decided pressure was not a good sensor," he said. "The zero reading would give us a false alarm in heavy seas."

      Instead, the device senses magnetic flux density between the frame and the door of the container, said Russell Mortenson, chairman of All Set Marine Security. "When the door moves, the magnetic field changes," he said, "and we can determine the distance between the door and the door frame quite accurately."

      The device is built to last for the life of the container, typically 10 years, he said.

      To interrogate the sensor, the G.E. group built wireless readers with a 100-foot range at dockside and prototypes of hand-held readers with a 30-foot range. "In the future," Mr. Petrizzi said, "we'd like a hand-held device the size of a flashlight to allow people to arm and read the status of the device."

      Unisys paid for some of the tests for the new system. "It was an opportunity to look at the competing types of technology," said Greg J. Baroni, who is president of the global public sector of Unisys. "This one is relatively inexpensive compared to the alternatives," he said. One alternative is Global Positioning System-based systems with satellite communication to keep track of goods on route.

      David Schrier, lead author of a report on container security by ABI Research of Oyster Bay, N.Y., said there would eventually be government-mandated rules for smart containers. His company estimated that more than seven million containers enter the United States annually.

      "Once that government mandate comes," he said, "the market will lose its apprehension about the costs of smart containers" and start providing minimum protection. "That may well be simple devices to tell if the container has been opened or not."

      Dr. Flynn said money spent on ensuring the integrity of cargo shipments was justified. "The costs to improve the odds of preventing an attack, and, in the worst case, to prevent shutting the whole system down, are a good payment to make."

      (The preceding report by Anne Eisenburg was published by the New York Times on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005.)

      January 20, 2005
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