Future cargo containers: how smart can they get?



Dr. Stephan Lechner, Director, Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy


Securing the supply chain and scanning cargo containers is a complex issue with significant policy impact. One of the most prominent items of regulation in this respect is the US SAFE Port Act of 2006, which introduced the requirement to scan 100 percent of cargo containers entering the US. But, even in the year 2012, six years after its introduction, the original intention of ‘Security and Accountability for Every Port’ was still not compatible with technical and organisational realities. Consequently, in 2012 the US Department of Homeland Security deferred the requirement of 100 percent scanning until July 2014, using a foreseen exception option in the SAFE Port Act. Therefore, the challenge of improving container security remains high on the agenda. To address the complex challenge, many research activities dealing with cargo containers and supply chain security have been launched. Already during the Bremen Container Security Conference of September 2009, the European Industry Commissioner, Verheugen underlined that: “Container security should not rely on one single technology and must be combined with a range of risk management tools, which are based on reliable and adequate information,” and that “technology can be of essential assistance.” The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has worked on the issue of container security for more than 10 years now, starting with mechanical and electronic seals. But recently a paradigm shift has been introduced to the research activities: instead of trying to protect the traditional container itself, new container concepts and new monitoring approaches were looked at, and first research results are promising. The requested range of risk management tools was pursued in four major research strands, which in the future might support a comprehensive, multitechnology, and agreed-upon approach to container security: new container materials; smart electronic sensors; wireless multi-hop communications, and mathematical outlier detection and security analysis. While the first three of these research areas are connected to the physical container itself, the outlier detection is a mechanism applied to ‘metadata’ (itinerary, transhipments, etc.) that does not have to come close to a container to perform a security analysis. In the following, the four research strands at the JRC and their current results will be described.

New container materials

The traditional cargo container is …

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