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Outside the Box

New Thinking to Scan Containers

SAFECON

(September 2007) Now here’s a concept not usually associated with the government: approach a challenge with completely new thinking. Not just a turn of direction, but a whole new way of looking at things.

This is the aim of the Safe Container project at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). Also called SAFECON, the project is looking for an innovative, all-in-one security system that would scan, in one quick swipe, cargo containers as they are lifted off ships.

This will be no small task, as there are tens of millions of these boxes entering U.S. ports every year. Currently, ports rely mostly on import laws and regulations to keep out threats. No single system for security now exists.

Yet Ed Turner, who manages SAFECON for the Directorate, can envision what one might look like and do. Using sensors or some type of other technology—likely mounted directly to automated cranes at ports—each box would be simultaneously checked for different chemical and biological risks, explosives, and even humans. It would not only detect threats, but identify what they are. And obviously, to keep trade and commerce flowing, it would have to work fast … very fast.

“We want to do all this in 45 seconds or less,” says Turner. “We’re looking for something that utterly changes the picture.”

SAFECON is not your typical Directorate project. It’s one of a group of projects called Homeland Innovative Prototypical Solutions (HIPS). Using less than 10% of the organization’s budget, HIPS are designed to deliver prototype-level demonstrations of game-changing technologies in just two to five years. HIPS even have a moderate-to-high risk of failure. If they succeed, however, they could absolutely improve homeland security in a major way.

To get SAFECON moving, the Directorate has posted a request for information, which seeks ideas and comments from industry and other interested parties by October 1. Once he gets a sense of what’s out there in terms of capability and inventiveness, Turner intends to establish some kind of testing ground. Here, ideas and sample technologies could be shown off and demonstrated. “I can see it as a simulated port-of-entry environment,” he adds.

The SAFECON project could have a prototype to work with in the next year or so. The Directorate has also been working closely with the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which is addressing threats posed by nuclear or radiological material, to explore how the office’s current and future technologies could be integrated into Directorate systems for single-device screening solutions.

Once operational, SAFECON could serve not only the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but state, local, international, and even private ports. “This could be a very big deal,” Turner says.

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

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