Three issues in particular are attracting plenty of industry attention when it comes to air cargo security and the equipment necessary to help achieve it: the effectiveness of screening technology; the high cost of some of that equipment; and the value that lies in standardising screening equipment across the world, given that the utility of screening technologies as well as associated security procedures currently differs widely across the globe.
The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) has taken something of a lead on the subject of air freight security and achieving technological standardisation in recent years, thanks in no small part to its decision to recruit former US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) air cargo security manager Doug Brittin to lead the organisation as secretary general. Brittin says TIACA has worked closely with numerous national regulatory agencies including the TSA, Transport Canada, and the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) in its efforts to see more uniform standards applied to air freight screening technology and software across the global industry, as part of its wider objective to seek “security measures that are effective, workable, and affordable, and that create minimal disruption to the vital flow of air cargo, which essentially relies on speed”.
Standardisation of screening technology is vital, Brittin insists, not only of the equipment or machines themselves but the software that lies behind many of them. Moreover, if the approved lists of freight screening equipment maintained by the majority of national transport regulatory bodies could also be standardised (and publicised) to a greater degree, these consistencies would allow manufacturers to feel more secure in the general acceptance that their products will receive. Such confidence would not only enable economies of scale to accrue as suppliers step up production of approved product lines, it could also translate into lessening the risk factor associated with investing in the development of future models of sophisticated screening equipment, Brittin suggests.
Manufacturers support TIACA’s drive to see greater normalisation of regulations among the numerous associated agencies around the world. Andrew Goldsmith, vice president of global marketing at US security screening supplier Rapiscan Systems, points to the large number of regulatory agency approvals that have been sought – and won – by his company for various equipment models.
One of the ways that a manufacturer such as Rapiscan can make it easier for those screening cargo shipments is to build into x-ray equipment software a reporting capability of what was screened, what the operator saw and what the operator did. That data can be useful not only for the company itself, perhaps as a training aid, but also to fulfill the increasing number of reporting requirements being introduced by regulatory agencies in an attempt to ensure that their mandated screening requirements are being met.
Vital for a supplier such as Rapiscan is to keep abreast of the latest regulatory requirements. Given that any change in a regulatory screening environment might make some of their machines obsolete overnight (though it might also open up new possibilities for new equipment), staying on top of any possible changes is crucial. And Goldsmith believes that regulators have – in general – become much more open to dialogue with the industry, both operators and manufacturers.
Smiths Detection is another of the big manufacturers offering sophisticated x-ray cargo screening equipment. It, too, is well aware of the need to maintain a strong dialogue with relevant parties. “We keep in touch with government bodies and regulators mainly through our Public Affairs organisation,” explains senior product manager Joachim Petry. “We also keep up a regular dialogue with the industry, including forwarders and airport operators,” he adds. “As an example, our experts are involved in working groups, conferences, etc., of the main agencies like the European Organisation for Security (the EOS, which has a supply chain security working group) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).”
At the heart of the air logistics chain, cargo handlers also have to make sure they are fully aware of any changes in the regulatory environment. Dubai-headquartered dnata says that it is not only meeting but exceeding the rapidly changing industry standards for cargo screening. “We were one of the first in the region certified to the TAPA (Transported Asset Protection Association) process in 2010 and recently achieved IATA’s RA3 standard for secure handling of cargo,” points out Bernd Struck, dnata’s senior vice president UAE cargo.
The cargo-carrying airlines, too, are doing their best to stay at the forefront of developments. Their focus is also on securing the right equipment for their screening needs. Lufthansa Cargo, for example, has an employee dedicated to seeking out new x-ray scanners and other security-related technologies, while working with the suppliers of screening equipment to promote the needs of the air cargo sector.
Nevertheless, insists Lufthansa Cargo’s chief security officer Harald Zielinski, those suppliers still don’t always fully realise the complex needs or the size of the air cargo security market segment.
The suppliers might disagree. They are working hard, they say, to meet the requirements of the sector. Smiths’ Petry points in particular to its HI-SCAN 180180-2is pro and IONSCAN 600 products. The new ‘pro’ version of the former meets the current global legal requirements for 100% inspection of air cargo on passenger flights, he points out. It also reflects the increasing need for x-ray units capable of screening LD3 containers as well as the largest package size accepted by TSA. Thanks to the “high penetration capabilities” of the HI-SCAN 180180-2is pro, it can screen large containers with no need to disassemble consolidated freight into individual packages. This cuts re-inspection times considerably and ensures both high throughput and a fast, efficient inspection process.
And the IONSCAN 600 explosives trace detector’s breakthrough feature is its proprietary non-radioactive Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) source that eliminates the need for special licensing, handling or disposal requirements, Petry remarks.
Rapiscan, too, is amongst the equipment suppliers looking to exploit new technologies recently developed. One primary focus for the company has been enabling automatic threat detection by means of the latest software algorithms. For example, working on a development project hand-in-hand with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), it has developed an algorithm for the automatic detection of lithium batteries – much highlighted of late as a potential danger to cargo and the aircraft carrying them. The software recognises how x-rays react when passed through lithium and highlights their presence to the operator. The technology is there, Goldsmith insists; Rapiscan is now “commercialising” that technology.
Similar algorithms are also being developed by the company to identify contraband cigarettes, and metals such as tungsten and lead that can be used to shield nuclear materials.
Goldsmith also believes that the sort of real-time tomography (RTT) screening that some of Rapiscan’s equipment offers represents another significant capability advance. Already used widely for screening passenger baggage because of the speed and efficiency of the technology, he considers that it is ideal for checking large numbers of small shipments, typically mail and parcels.
TIACA’s Brittin is delighted with the way that technology companies such as Smiths and Rapiscan have stepped up to the challenges facing the industry. He is of the opinion that it is vital these suppliers offer “a good menu” of alternatives in screening equipment and thus, by extension, the way screening can be carried out by different operators.
Not all these manufacturers’ customers are completely satisfied, however. Lufthansa Cargo’s Zielinski is pleased when the manufacturers come up with a screening breakthrough, but says that real leaps forward are actually few and far between. There have been significant developments in sniffer screening, while the picture the operator sees generated by modern x-ray scanners is much clearer than it was a few years ago, but he still considers that there is much progress that still needs to be made with regard to screening the larger pallets and containers (even the ubiquitous LD3). There are many operators, he considers, who are reluctant to sign on the dotted line to say that there is absolutely no chance of a dangerous material being hidden inside such a container, even after screening. “From a purely physics point of view, you’re not seeing the whole picture,” Zielinski warns.
One of the ways that the manufacturers have tried to get round the problem mentioned by so many cargo screening operators, dnata included – the expense of the equipment – is to offer a wide range of products with very different price points. “Our broad product portfolio considers different price levels for customers,” says Petry. “Some smaller forwarders might be pleased with an x-ray system that is more suitable for screening smaller packages and is based on a smaller tunnel size that is less expensive.”
Rapiscan believes that it offers the widest range of large tunnel screening equipment on the market, and it too offers a wide choice of prices depending on the equipment model. Moreover, says Goldsmith, it has attempted to add greater value for money through offering the maximum possible cost-effectiveness and efficiency in its products. Partly this is achieved through the “integrated approach” it has taken to its various models. For example, by offering dual-screen output, the screening operator can compare what he is seeing on the x-ray to what is supposed to be there – the second screen can display the relevant air waybill or other relevant documentation.
As another alternative to high capital cost outlays, Rapiscan also offers a ‘screening as a service’ option, whereby it supplies x-ray equipment, any required training, or even the x-ray operators to a customer.
There are few specialised manufacturers involved in producing modern air cargo screening equipment. As such, the pace is bound to be slow and it will be some time before the options get any cheaper, Struck warns. The focus needs to be on user-friendly technology, allowing for quick and reliable scans of the shipment at a reasonable cost, he says, but – while the equipment is so expensive – many handlers may choose to go with more labour-intensive but less cost-prohibitive options (in terms of initial capital outlay) of handheld explosive trace detection and/or metal detection equipment.
Money no object
While x-ray machines are undoubtedly expensive, the risk involved in purchases on the part of a shipper, forwarder or carrier can be eased if the buyer has confidence that the regulatory standards to which that company is working will retain that machine on its approved list for as long as possible. This has been another concern of TIACA, Brittin notes.
He would like to see regulatory agencies give their support to any approved equipment throughout its entire product life-cycle “wherever possible” – though Brittin admits that any leap forward in screening technology does have the potential to make older equipment obsolete in fairly short order.
Moreover, the importance of security is paramount. While, Zielinski is of the belief that air cargo screening is way behind in comparison to the effort and money that has been invested in passenger screening, when it comes to security, “money doesn’t matter,” he says. “Security is not negotiable.”
Thus, not only in terms of equipment, but training and time, the German carrier has invested heavily in securing its air freight supply chain. This takes in machine-based screening and dog sniffing. Lufthansa Cargo also assesses new technologies and processes as they are made available, some of which may represent significantly cheaper options than expensive large tunnel scanners – one such is the RASCargO (Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction, regulated in Europe as Remote Explosive Scent Tracing, or REST), which involves dogs sniffing samples of a cargo shipment rather than the consignment itself. The procedure is already used by some European nations already as an alternative or as a supplement to x-ray screening.
Meeting the challenges
Cutting down on the amount of screening required saves time and money. By means of regulated or known (shipper) programmes, physical scanning could be a less frequently used recourse, considers Struck, although he points out that this will depend on the security situation in a given region and the prevailing threat perception. Intelligence-led security and risk-based analysis are also likely to be vital if screening responsibilities are not to become overwhelming.
TIACA is certainly of the view that intelligence-led analysis is going to be vital. Only a two-pronged strategy of intelligence-based detection alongside physical screening of potentially dangerous shipments will allow the air cargo industry to remain efficient, and to retain its lead in product delivery time in the face of competition from ocean shipping, Brittin insists.
Further technological advances that focus on automated scanning, which could eliminate the need for human intervention and ensure overall consistency and reliability, are also likely to be of critical importance. Meanwhile, the need to provide reliable and affordable technology that offers the highest possible speed of screening throughput is likely to remain a fundamental priority for the industry – a challenge that the suppliers are working hard to meet.