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Innovations in airfreight screening

By Hpanchal on July 25, 2012

In roughly four months, all cargo bound for the U.S. on passenger flights must be screened due to a directive by the Transportation Security Administration. Officials pushed back the rule, which was originally slated to go into effect on Dec. 31, 2011, after heated industry feedback.

The new deadline — December 3 — “builds additional risk-based, intelligence-driven procedures into the prescreening process to determine screening protocols on a per-shipment basis,” according to the U.S. agency. Specifically, shipments deemed “high-risk” will undergo enhanced screening, while those marked “low-risk” will go through different physical screening measures.

It’s a relatively straightforward process, the TSA’s Jim Fotenos explains. The agency provides shippers with a catalog of approved screening modes via the TSA Air Cargo Screening Technologies List, with technologies generally grouped into one of four categories: X-ray, explosives detection systems, explosives trace detection and metal detection. Fotenos says the agency regularly informs shippers about new screening developments. It also updates the TSA ACSTL as technologies emerge, which enables parties to “stay ahead of the marketplace,” he maintains.

Daniel Gomez, vice president of security at DHL Express Americas, says the TSA’s process isn’t foolproof, however. Despite praising the agency for making significant strides in airfreight safety — including its mutual recognition of Canada, Switzerland and the European Union’s security programs — Gomez cites some roadblocks to success. For one thing, he says, the agency’s list of approved technologies is restricted, “and because equipment supplies are limited, delivery deadlines may exceed the TSA’s deadline.”

Gomez says another glaring problem is that most of the technologies available are designed to screen baggage — not cargo. What the industry lacks, he says, is “approved, cost-efficient and cargo-specific technology” that can screen bulk freight at the piece level. One major concern right now is this piece-meal screening process. And without the collaborative effort of regulators, carriers and manufacturers, pushing to develop economical screening technologies for bulk cargo, it’s a problem that will remain, Gomez says.

Fotenos agrees that screening technology is somewhat limited, but says this is not for lack of effort. He maintains that the TSA has directly implored the industry to develop technologies capable of screening containers with multiple types of freight. “[This] is how large ULDs are typically packed,” he says.

Whether such innovations come to market before the TSA’s December deadline or not, one fact remains: Manufacturers worldwide are scrambling to develop technologies that help the industry better screen cargo.

Hottest technologies

Several of Morpho Detection’s systems appear on the TSA ACSTL — including the Itemiser DX desktop explosives trace detector, the CTX 5800 and the HRX line of X-ray scanners. The firm also has other technologies in the pipeline, Jay Hill, Morpho’s executive vice president of global strategy and technology, reveals. Currently, however, Hill is most optimistic about the Itemiser system. “One of the most effective ways to stay ahead of potential threats is to deploy a screening program that automatically detects the presence of explosives,” Hill says.

He explains that traditional X-ray systems only detect abnormalities — not explosives. Along with wasting time, this can lead to “potentially dangerous” manual inspections of airfreight, he says. Not that Hill thinks the technology should be completely eliminated, he’s quick to point out. “We believe X-ray systems are useful, but believe that they should be combined with trace detection for accurate identification of explosives,” he says.
In addition to trace detection, Hill cites vapor collection, as well as high-energy X-ray and CT, as other methods that could potentially change the face of cargo screening. Plus, he projects, future technologies will allow security agents to automatically screen mixed-bulk pallets without having to remove individual packages — a true advancement, Hill maintains.

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