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Cargo Security International: Decision Time

By December 11, 2012No Comments


For two days in summer, Freeport, Bahamas was the testing ground for what might prove to be one of the most innovative new developments in cargo security. On 9-10 August 2012, Decision Sciences International Corp. deployed its first fully operational multi-mode passive detection system (MMPDS) at the Freeport Container Port.

According to Decision Sciences, one of the things that makes MMPDS so interesting is that it is completely passive. This means – as the company’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr Stanton D. Sloane explained in the October/November issue of Cargo Security International – that it can be ‘used to scan containers of food and other “organics” without any risk and it poses no health risk to operators or other personnel’.

Put simply, the technology builds on pioneering work that was done by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who found that it is possible to detect and classify radiological material by measuring angles of deflection when muons collide with nuclei. Muons are cosmic rays: natural, harmless and small enough to pass through everything – including lead shielding.

Decision Sciences uses the work at Los Alamos as a starting point, but it has spent the past five years turning the theory into a robust, operational device. In the lab, muon tomography seemed to tick a lot of boxes: safe, accurate and unfazed by shielding. But the question remained: would it be able to deal with the ‘real world’ demand of a busy port environment?

Speaking to Cargo Security International in early November, Dr Sloane reported that results from Freeport had been overwhelmingly positive. ‘We are still analysing data, but everything is going well and we were very pleased with the results,’ said Dr Sloane.

‘The August event was a “demonstration” of the system, and its first deployment to an operational port environment,’ Dr Sloane continued. ‘The test was configured using three trucks that were loaded with various threat options. These included different types of both shielded and unshielded potential nuclear and radiological materials.’

The trucks were processed on a continuous cycle, timed to simulate the high throughput of a busy international terminal.

Cargo Container being scanned in Decision Sciences MMPDS - Freeport, Bahamas

Decision Sciences’ MMPDS passed with flying colours. Not only did it achieve a 100% success rate in detecting the potential threats but, crucially, it demonstrated that it could keep pace with a high volume port’s work rate.

Keeping pace is an essential requirement for any technology looking for a place in the supply chain. Terminal operators and their customers need to know that the arrival of a scanner will not send port operations grinding to a halt.

The passive nature of the MMPDS is also an asset when it comes to reducing disruptions. Because there are no health risks associated with the technology, it does not have to be contained in a scanning silo. Instead, it can be integrated within the existing footprint of the marine terminal – which saves on both space and time.

The MMPDS can also help to save money. The system is less expensive to buy than its conventional x-ray based counterparts and its running costs are significantly lower. Dr Sloane said that a Decision Sciences installation would probably be about a quarter of the price of a typical high-energy system.

Although the two-day demonstration ended in August, the Decision Sciences system remains on site at Freeport, and operational simulations are ongoing. It has also been attracting interest from a number of US government agencies and other potential customers, and testing under the company’s contract with the US Department of Homeland Security will take place in Freeport. The Freeport installation has also borne testament to the system’s physical resilience. Hurricane Sandy came crashing through the Bahamas at the end of October. Freeport was not on Sandy’s main pathway, recounted Dr Sloane, but there was still a lot of rain.

Looking to the future, Decision Sciences would like to see the demonstration model in Freeport become its first ‘operational’ site. ‘We would like to see Freeport lead the fleet, with scanners coming online in other locations next year,’ said Dr Sloane. ‘Our initial thinking was to focus on deploying at ports participating in the US Megaports programme, and then branch out to other ports around the world that supply cargo to the United States.

‘This is a substantial market. Between March 2011 and March 2012, around 750 ports supplied one or more containers to the United States.’ Decision Sciences is also pursuing opportunities in the border crossing and air cargo markets. The company is currently working with the US Department of Defense (DoD) on a project that involves demonstrating the system’s capability to detect explosives and other contraband items.

With the Freeport demonstration, Decision Sciences has proved it can unearth threats and opportunities (in terms of security and business, respectively) – but translating this into commercial success will be the big challenge.

Containers at the Freeport Container Port

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