A mobile X-ray screening system developed for the war on drugs is now doing double-duty on the front lines of another war—that against terrorism—by helping to prevent weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States either by land or through one of its hundreds of seaports.
As congestion at American seaports grows along with the need for tighter vigilance against terrorists, the new technology promises to increase port efficiency and safety, without disrupting the flow of commerce.
The Eagle Mobile Cargo Inspection System was developed according to specifications determined by U.S. Customs by the Advanced Research and Applications Corporation, (ARACOR), a subsidiary of OSI Systems (Nasdaq: OSIS), whose wide range of security screening systems using diverse technologies are manufactured a four locations around the world. It is designed to inspect sea and air cargo containers, vehicles, and rail cars in order to verify manifests and detect contraband.
Boosters in industry and in government say that the Eagle, a straddle carrier mounted system, is perhaps the highest performance system that is on a mobile platform produced anywhere in the world.
Recently, the Port Authority of Jamaica announced that it was purchasing an Eagle system to help prevent the smuggling of weapons, drugs, explosive and other illicit cargo, and to ensure that what is listed on a ship’s bill of lading is what it actually carries in its containers. Jamaican officials made it plain that they saw the purchase as a key element in winning support for their country’s inclusion in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Container Security Initiative.
At the official signing ceremony, Jamaican Minister of Transport and Works, Robert Pickersgill, noted that: “Meeting the requisite international standards for port security today is not any country’s option, but an imperative. Ports not achieving the security standards will more likely experience difficulties in world trade participation.”
“Our investment in the most capable equipment and advanced security systems demonstrate the government’s commitment to ensure the security of our ports, and shipping lines serving our country’s foreign trade and transshipment operations,” Pickersgill added.
(Assembly of the Eagle in City Kingston was being wrapped up last week, noted officials of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based ARACOR.)
Advocates say that the Eagle’s X-ray technology portends even greater improvements in how the country-region United States confronts the gargantuan and growing inspection requirements on its borders, including at seaports.
Some 185 commercial deep-water ports include more than 1,900 public and private terminals with more than 3,200 deep-draught berths. From these sources alone, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processes hundreds of thousands of vessels and millions of sea containers.
The problem of global port congestion (of which the much-touted “container jam” at Los Angeles/Long Beach is just one example) is already threatening to slow the growth of world trade, even as most liner companies’ new 8,000- and 9,000-TEU container ships are prepared for deployment in 2005 and 2006.
In September, the Eagle was chosen by R&D Magazine for a 2004 “R&D 100 award,” and was selected as the “Best of the Best” among those products that solve a social problem. Members of the judging panel included almost 50 independent technical experts, as well as the magazine’s editors, and competitors for the awards included country-region U.S. national laboratories as well as businesses from Asia, Europe and place North America.
Originally, the Eagle was thought of as an important tool to cut down on the billions of dollars annually lost in duty fraud, as well as to detect narcotics, weapons, explosives and other contraband.
Even before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Customs inspectors were faced with the fact that they could only physically inspect a few percent of the containers arriving at ports of entry; a problem that also extended to uncovering stolen goods such as automobiles, electronics and computers being shipped overseas.
In the late 1990s, senior ARACOR officials were deeply engaged in conversations with their counterparts at U.S. Customs, who were under pressure from Congress to do more to interdict the flow of drugs coming into the country.
“They had had early-use experience with some low energy X-ray systems using 450KW tubes and gamma ray systems,” recalled Robert Armistead, ARACOR president, in a telephone interview.
“Neither one of them were giving them the type of performance they needed to inspect sea cargo containers or trucks carrying dense cargo.”
ARACOR already had a reputation for producing high-performance X-ray imaging products, of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional varieties.
Current clients for the OSI subsidiary include several automobile makers, who use its scanners to inspect car parts; the U.S. Air Force, which employs them to inspect the rocket motors of both Peacekeeper and Minuteman missiles, and the Department of Energy, which uses them to inspect nuclear weapons components at its storage sites.
In 2000, Armistead recalled, the company delivered an Eagle prototype to Custom’s Thunder Mountain Evaluation Center in City Fort Huachuca, State Ariz., a controlled operational test environment.
“It worked so well there,” Armistead noted, “that even though our contract had ended at that point, it was shipped to the Port of Miami in February 2001 to do operational tests.” After the Eagle passed those, it went into routine operation in one of the nation’s most critical anti-narcotics theaters of operation.
With the sea-change in government focus after the outrage of Sept. 11, 2001, the Eagle prototype was sent to Ysletta Crossing on the border with country-region Mexico, near City El Paso, Texas. A two-man team runs the Eagle inspecting trucks as part of the DHS’s Fast and Secure Trade Lanes (FAST) program; the system is also used for secondary inspection of trucks that have cargo that is too dense for the gamma ray system in operation there.
Knowledgeable observers say that the Eagle has already helped CBP personnel make discoveries they might not have using any other technology—such as heroin packed into the cylinders of a truck entering from Mexico.
And, not only are the images much better than those from the old gamma ray-reliant Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, or VACIS, equipment produced by SAIC—space limitations which allowed the VACIS II to do just two rows of trucks are not a problem for the Eagle, which can inspect five rows. An average of 180 FAST trucks are inspected during two shifts during weekdays, a number that occasionally has exceeded 200.
In March, 2003, ARACOR announced it had received a 5-year open-ended contract with Customs for its Eagle mobile cargo inspection systems.
Since that time, an Eagle installed at the Port of Savannah, Georgia, has won praise from inspection officials there, who say that its imaging is superior to that received from the VACIS machines. An Eagle has also just been installed at the Port of Baltimore.
“Corporate country-region America has really stepped up to the plate in terms of its contribution to protecting the homeland,” said William Anthony, a CBP spokesman, saying that he considered the Eagle to be an example of that.
Anthony noted that CBP had $80 million dollars in the current year’s budget to purchase “non-intrusive inspectional technology.” Asked if CBP planned other purchases of the Eagle, he replied: “We don’t have another port yet where we’re going to add them--when you buy a new piece of equipment you have to test it in different areas. … (But) it is a more powerful unit and can see into some things that a VACIS cannot.”
Knowledgeable observers point out that, for example, before the Eagle arrived in place City Savannah, inspectors had to manually inspect containers of rolled Pakistani rugs by unrolling each single rug, because the VACIS could not penetrate the rugs for to look for anomalies. Since the Eagle has been in use, however, its penetrating images allow the inspectors to quickly clear the containers without have to de-van them.
Unlike fixed-site systems which require vehicles and containers being brought to them, the mobile and self-contained machine can be quickly driven to different locations and inspect a 20-foot container in less than 30 seconds—it merely drives over it.
The Eagle’s operational flexibility also allows it to be transported intact by ship, or to be disassembled for truck or rail transport.
CBP officials praise the Eagle’s capabilities for imaging (it can inspect objects of some 11 feet in width), penetration (greater than any other mobile cargo inspection system), and increasing overall confidence in inspection protocols. It is available either with a fixed inspection envelope, or with telescoping legs, which allows the image plan to range from near-ground level to 18 feet high.
Operating at a standard setting, the Eagle can scan a 20-foot container in about 25 seconds, while achieving a “sweet spot” penetration of about 12 inches of steel and about 10-11 inches at the edges of the beam.
Although with other gamma-ray inspection systems, the faster they scan, the greater the decrease in both penetration and spatial resolution, with the Eagle, increases in scanning speeds used for most operations can be achieved without changing either of those variables, company officials say. They also point out that the Eagle also eliminates risks to customs agents and others who previously had to manually devan containers that held potentially dangerous materials.
Because the Eagle was designed to safely operate in congested areas such as seaports, it limits radiation leakage, bringing the levels far below those the Food and Drug Administration and CBP say meet their criteria for a “cabinet-like X-ray system.”
Thus, company officials say, even at full power operation, the Eagle’s exclusion area— developed according to legacy Customs requirements—is about 120 feet.
Martin Edwin Andersen can be reached via Mick_Andersen@portsecuritynews.com Copyright (C) 2004 Port Security News
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