Container Tracking/Security




Figure 1


Defining the problem

The United States has 361 ports along the 95,000 miles of open shoreline in a 3.5-million square mile Exclusive Economic Zone.  Ninety-five percent of cargo tonnage moving in and out of the country is by use of shipboard container (Figure 1). Each year, more than 7,500 commercial vessels make approximately 51,000 port calls, unloading over 7 million marine containers, less than two percent of which are subjected to any official inspection at all.  According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, container cargo will quadruple in the next 20 years to approximately 30 million containers per year.  The vast majority of these vessels sail under flags of convenience, registered in Tonga, Panama, Liberia, Cyprus, or the Bahamas, which means that they are not subject to control by any international authority.

In October 2001, only weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities in an Italian seaport discovered an Egyptian man suspected of Al Qaeda membership hiding in a shipping container bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Airport maps and security passes were also found in the container, which he had outfitted with a bed and bathroom.

These conditions are an open invitation to individuals and organizations hostile to the United States who are rapidly gaining access to fissile materials, biological agents and other dangerous weapons.  The potential that one of these millions of shipping containers will carry into the United States a nuclear device or a chemical or biological weapon of mass destruction is highly possible.  It only takes one container with its lethal cargo to do enormous damage.

How do we implement a security and tracking system that can reliably and economically scale to an annual throughput of 30 million shipping containers within the next 20 years?  This WiHART Systems white paper will outline a solution.

It should be emphasized that although security is of major concern the location of tens of millions of containers is of no less importance.  During the Iraq logistics efforts it was reported that over 36 million containers could not be located, forcing logistics companies to reorder supplies due to misplaced or lost cargo.


Manual Inspection at the Source

 Inspections of containers at the point of origin are a question of manpower costs, appropriate personnel security measures and background checks.  The ability of the US to monitor hiring practices of security officials in foreign ports is highly dubious.  From a financial point of view the average time required to load a shipping container is about three hours.  A security inspector should be able to supervise the loading of at least four containers simultaneously, meaning that a single full-time inspector could supervise the loading of approximately fifty containers a week.

At the current annual influx of 7.5 million shipping containers, this translates to a full-time work force of about three thousand inspectors stationed at ports around the world. At a generous average salary of $50 thousand a year, such an inspection force would operate on an annual budget of approximately $150 million, increasing to $600 million as container cargo quadruples over the next 20 years.  These numbers can be considered conservative because of administrative and bureaucratic overhead.

Manual inspection only insures that when the containers are closed (sealed) that the cargo does not include any harmful contraband, although if each box in the container is not opened individually, dangerous cargo can still get aboard.  Very often containers can sit in the storage yard prior to loading on the ship and thus are subject to tampering by people who can cut a hole (with a cutting torch) in the container and place dangerous material inside after it has been sealed.

Solving the Problem

In 2002 the U.S. Department of Transportation (Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) section) issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) regarding container security.  The DOT BAA requested a response for the solution to the problem of marine container security.  The BAA included the following list of topics which the proposed solution should consider with appropriate comments.  The list of pertinent topics is included below and will serve as an introduction to the WiHART Systems solution to marine container security:

  • Real time risk management systems that can be scaled to address vulnerabilities and different levels of security threats.
  • Comprehensive risk profiling systems for container traffic including assessment of patterns, trends and performance of security systems.
  • Advanced systems for tracking container shipments from the point of loading and unloading at ports, conveyance and transportation in inter-modal systems and delivery to a customer.
  • Approaches for interlinking data on container information and cargo status including manifest information into a centralized national or global database.
  • Systems for identifying critical gaps in flow of container cargo information, processing, analysis and fusion of information for tracking containers and cargo between foreign ports and U.S. ports.
  • Technologies for remote or non-intrusive and timely detection of contraband materials including high energy release materials, explosives and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), chemical and biological agents, radiological materials or other hazardous materials or destruction mechanisms present in and around containers in single mode and multiple mode methods of cargo shipments.
  • Automated tracking and communication systems to report the status of container movements in transportation with capabilities to detect intrusions, anomalies or any attempts that compromise container integrity and sealing.
  • Advanced and tamper resistant sealing technologies including electronic seals for loaded and empty containers that produce a high level of sustained sealing integrity and performance, regardless of the mode of shipment and handling of the cargo.
  • Automated methods and tests to rapidly validate container sealing, integrity and sealing performance.
  • Concepts for advanced and self-contained design of containers with built in capabilities for communication, intrusion detection and cargo status.
  • Low cost and disposable electronic seals with electronic ID’s that record container designation and continuously record status and provide tampering alerts.
  • Long life battery technologies incorporated in containers to power electronic seals and self-contained communication capabilities.
  • Rapid and systematic inspection techniques for timely detection of potential anomalies in container sealing at any stage of the container handling process.


This white paper will address the above BAA requests using the WiHART Systems  DASH7 based wireless network.

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