Daan Van Vroonhoven, Smiths Detection’s global director for aviation and regulatory compliance, considers how developments in screening solutions can help the air cargo industry meet the pressures it is facing on several fronts.
The air cargo sector faces a range of ever evolving, and new, security threats coupled with tightening global regulation.
In this climate, automation, intelligent networking and data-analytics capabilities have an essential role to play in boosting security, creating operational efficiencies, and assisting with regulatory compliance.
With accelerated growth in international trade and e-commerce, very short delivery times and more interconnected global supply chains, the need for efficiency across the air cargo ecosystem, both in mandatory security screening and in screening for contrabands or dangerous goods, has only increased.
The most common threats for cargo screening are the ones that society has faced for many years; explosives in their different forms, contraband, as well as prohibited or dangerous items like lithium batteries, narcotics, illegal currency, fireworks and bio-threats.
What is changing, however, are the techniques and tactics smugglers are using to conceal these security threats.
The first method is hiding smuggled objects in densely packed parcels or containers so that contraband is missed during screening. Secondly, smugglers try to camouflage explosives or narcotics inside legal substances, such as everyday foods. Finally, smugglers may use ‘shielding’ or distribute contraband in a shipment to impede detection with legacy technology.
Evolving smuggler tactics…prohibited by faster evolving technology
First developed for the medical industry, computed tomography (CT) scanners produce volumetric 3D X-ray images examining shipment contents from every angle.
The comprehensive data collected is used to make precise measurements and very accurate judgments on substances within the shipments, which only require operator analysis when the system flags up something suspicious. This means that fewer operators can deal with growing volumes.
CT technology therefore delivers the highest standards of security as well as improving operational efficiencies and productivity and ultimately lowering costs. The systems are becoming more and more energy efficient and therefore cost effective, which is crucial in today’s business environment.
In future, security and efficiency could be taken to another level through the deployment of X-ray diffraction technology. It provides highly accurate identification of molecular structures and allows for even higher levels of accuracy in material analysis and detecting substances. Diffraction could be used to automatically clear alarms generated by CT scanners as well as to identify currently hard to detect substances, such as narcotics.
Deploying smart algorithms to boost automatic threat detection capabilities
As an industry that trades on speed, efficiency for air cargo carriers will always be paramount, which makes it a key focus. Cargo screening equipment is now being enhanced with ‘smart’ algorithms which identify an ever-expanding list of dangerous goods and contraband.
These algorithms can be trained through machine learning techniques to offer powerful and accurate detection of ever-evolving dangerous, prohibited, and contraband goods and substances.
In the course of time there is also potential to combine the automatic explosives detection capability of a scanner with object recognition for more accurate judgments on the threat potential of a shipment.
The alarms triggered by automatic explosives detection algorithms could be verified by object recognition algorithms. If no threat is identified, the freight would not need to be rechecked by an operator. This would massively accelerate the movement of goods through screening checks.
With the advancement of technology and the current strain on security operators, there will be more scope for the automation of repetitive tasks where AI is more efficient. Furthermore, AI is already supporting human operators and overcoming gaps in detection capabilities.
Advancing data analytics
Increased networking capabilities, the advancement of data-analytics and connectivity will also deliver strong operational advantages. For major airport cargo hubs, where there are multiple terminals and consistently high volumes of cargo, wide-area networks (WANs), which enable centralized and remote image evaluation, also help accentuate security.
Although centralization is not a new concept, image analysis is a new application. WANs can facilitate the real-time sharing of images between different areas of a building or sites (or even countries and continents) enabling greater resource prioritization and operational efficiency.
Although long established for airport hold baggage screening systems, remote screening is a newer development for cargo. The benefits are particularly clear when it comes to countries with many regional airports spread far apart which see fluctuating cargo volumes.
Linking all outlying locations to a key airport where volumes are more consistent enables more efficient operator resourcing, rather than keeping staff onsite at smaller airports around the clock.
On a country-to-country or even continental level, image sharing via WANs would enable more sophisticated data analysis across global security networks to significantly boost security outcomes, with one set of scanned images for both outbound security and inbound customs clearance at the destination.
Although the capability is there, to fully realize the potential of international data sharing close co-operation between authorities is required.
Linking technology in a collaborative way for greater security outcomes
Open architecture (OA), which facilitates the interoperability and interfacing of security screening algorithms and screening hardware from different suppliers within one solution, is another huge area of security development.
The future of air cargo security will be driven by data informing risk-based decisions and using integrated sensors and devices from multiple providers. It will require open equipment interfaces and common data formats with an oversight mechanism to provide assurance on aspects such as technical standards, certification and liability.
Already being utilised, the perception is that, in the airport security environment, OA will deliver system flexibility; faster innovation and time to market; and less costly upgrades.
The key drivers to achieve these goals are the integration of third-party algorithms, data sharing and centralized image processing. These themes are relevant to air cargo and, ultimately, the ability to have multiple algorithms from different suppliers, would significantly boost detection capabilities and meet the needs of different stakeholders.
The underlying goal will always be to improve operational performance and security outcomes.
The risk-based screening approach of the future
The adoption of risk-based screening as a complement to the other developments is extensively acknowledged as the next major development for air cargo screening. Special treatment requirements for shipments from a high-risk origin country, or cargo that has obviously been tampered with, are already in place.
Going forward, aggregating data from various sources could provide a more refined risk analysis. Integrated, networked security solutions should enable different security measures to be triggered automatically in response to a change in threat. This could, for example, take the form of applying different detection algorithms.
The most obvious benefit is the intelligent use of additional resources to increase security. The flexibility of risk-based screening should also deliver a screening process which can adapt to changing circumstances whilst complying with privacy and data protection concerns.
The technical means to introduce risk-based screening are available now. Many of the latest security screening solutions can integrate sensors and interface with wider information systems and could respond to changing threat levels by flight, destination or sender.