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SAFETY & SECURITY Last modified on June 6, 2011

Thinking inside the box

What cargo security screening equipment is available today and how is it likely to evolve in the next few years? Saul Wordsworth investigates.

In matters of aviation security, events tend to trigger re-evaluation, which in turn leads to new legislation. In that regard, 9/11 changed everything both nationally and internationally, the foiled 2006 transatlantic plot to use liquid explosives aboard numerous aircraft saw an immediate liquids ban, and last year’s foiled plot to detonate two homemade explosives concealed as freight led to aviation’s previously passenger focused security efforts turning to cargo. 

Indeed, the incident led to the fast tracking of all US-bound cargo being screened prior to take-off.

“After the Yemen incident, planned new legislation requiring the screening of all cargo on fl ights bound for the US was brought forward from 2013 to later this year,” says Ken Mann, aviation technical director at Rapiscan, one of the world leaders in cargo scanning equipment. 

“Cargo security is unbelievably complex. If you asked a cargo operator to tell you what they have, they couldn’t because it’s everything from dead bodies and motorbikes to fl owers and potatoes. If it’s personal effects, it could be computers, books and food all at the same time. It’s never easy to defi ne one type of cargo in one place.” 

Add to the mix the competitive nature of the cargo business, the ever-changing body of legislation and the need to keep up the speed of commercial throughput whilst maintaining effective screening, and the pressures are clear.


Potential solutions

“We provide a combination of conventional X-ray machines, Computed Topography (CT) Explosive Detection Systems (EDS), which work like hospital MRI machines, and multi-view solutions, many of which are TSA (Transportation Security Administration) approved,” says Mann.

“Historically, there have been a lot of single-view dual-energy X-ray machines for cargo. Dual-energy means you get some material separation, but it’s still a single-view, which has its limitations.

“Sometimes you have to take the cargo out and re-screen it from a different angle or break down a pallet. Most cargo today is screened with dual-view, typically one from the side and one shooting down or up. That way you’ve got two orthogonal views. From next year, all airports in the UK will insist on cargo being screened from more than one view.” 

Rapiscan is currently awaiting European and US approval on a real-time tomography solution that hopes to combine the speed of X-ray with the detail of existing CT systems.

“It’s designed to accurately and rapidly detect an increased range of explosive threats and prohibited items such as liquid explosives,” says Mann. “It should be able to scan between 1,500 to 1,800 bags per hour. We see this as our next step in cargo security.” 



L-3 is one of the industry’s most trusted names. Twelve of its current cargo security solutions are on the TSA Qualifi ed Products List (QPL), and itssystems are in situ at airports throughout the US, the Middle East, Europe and Australasia.

For more than a decade, L-3 has been providing airports with X-ray systems for break-bulk, pallets and unit load devices (ULDs). 

Its deployment of a multi-sensor scanner to inspect large air cargo pallets for Dutch customs at Amsterdam Schiphol is one of the most advanced in the world.

“Since August 2010, TSA has stipulated the screening of 100% of cargo transported on US domestic aircraft,” says Bill Frain, senior vice-president of Business Development at L-3.

“Although there are far fewer mandates in Europe, there has always been a lot more activity. The Middle East purchased these systems long before the US. It just hasn’t been homogenised elsewhere. However, the new buzzword is harmonisation.” 

For L-3, the focus remains on keeping commerce moving whilst maintaining as high a quality screening outcome as possible. 

“Our products come in a multitude of tunnel sizes, from 60cm by 40cm right up to large pallet-loading systems,” he says. “Amsterdam Schiphol is a good example of this. We take the ULDs straight off cargo freighters, put them on a conveyor system and right through our machine. The solution enables airports to accelerate screening of consolidated cargo in pallets, crates and ULDs by eliminating the need to unpack cargo for inspection.

“With optional dual energy material discrimination illustrating organic from inorganic material and metals, operators can work more efficiently and effectively. 

“In addition, since our systems are software driven we continue to work on and adjust our algorithms for optimal detection purposes.”



With tens of solutions featured on the TSA’s approval list, Smiths Detection is a long-standing bastion of cargo security.

“Like most suppliers we have solutions of differing size and sophistication,” says Brook Miller, head of government affairs for Smiths.

“Our advanced explosive trace detector was the first of its kind to be placed on the TSA’s QPL list. It is able to detect a wide range of explosives and narcotics in a single unit. Today we provide conventional X-ray, some of which use algorithms to support inspectors, along with our trace detection portfolio.” 

Smiths is constantly working in collaboration with the TSA, customs and border protection to ensure they are aware of the latest threats and the kinds of alternations they can make to their existing technology to improve security.

“Are there any new ‘wow’ technologies in the industry pipeline? No, but there are many practical and useful modifications that can be made to enhance existing security.”


The future

For Rapiscan’s Ken Mann, the future means a move toward more appropriate technology. 

“If you have flowers or food stuffs that are non-conductive you can use sensitive metal detectors,” he says. “There are also various neutron-based, nuclear techniques that are excellent at locating items in dense metal cargos that other technologies would struggle with.

“In terms of processes, there are already systems in place whereby screening for trusted suppliers is unnecessary because security is built-in from the beginning. 

“I foresee more use of audit trails proving that security has been upheld at all points, but also a more stringent checking along this audit line to guarantee its origin.” 

L-3’s Frain says: “I have worked in the arena since 1993 and you always think you are going to come to end of the line, but the threat just continues to evolve and reach new market segments.

“We are working on programmes with universities here in the US on the detection of the kinds of shields that can mask a nuclear detection within a container. If you find a shield you cannot penetrate, it’s time to inspect.” 

While Smith’s Miller muses: “For me, the future is in international standardisation. Further development of smarter, faster technologies to screen pallets with certainty and automated detection algorithms need to be part of that and it’s something we in the industry are working towards.

“It’s important to remember, though, that the cargo solution lies in a blend of intelligence work, known shipper programmes, the use of technology and canines, and flexibility in response to threats. These all are ways in which we are slowly raising the bar.”


Security ‘harmonisation’

In 2008, a Quadrilateral Agreement was signed between Australia, Canada, the EU and the US, with the goal to begin the process of guaranteeing equivalent overall levels of air cargo security between partners.

An EU Agreement for the purpose of discussing methods for developing commensurate regulatory and inspection principles for air cargo between the United States and the European Union was signed the same year. 

Most recently, in October 2010, the US joined 190 countries to offi cially adopt the ICAO’s Declaration on Aviation Security, which forges a historic new foundation for aviation security that will better protect the entire global aviation system from evolving terrorist threats.



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