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When Your Ship Comes In: Tracking Elusive Containers

(July 2007) The world is a very different place out beyond the horizon. At any given time, some 40,000 large cargo ships are plying the world’s oceans, as are innumerable smaller merchant craft. They all pull in and out of ports, load, unload, change out crews and cargos, and steam from one location to the next. It can be an amazing, and trackless, story—rivaling Pirates of the Caribbean—to document how these ships come by and load their cargo, by what polyglot seamen and in what untamed ports.

At any point in a merchant ship’s journey, pry open a container and what will you find? When you can’t be sure, that spells danger. A single container gone purposefully astray and packed with explosives is not a fictional scenario.

Enter MATTS, the Marine Asset Tag Tracking System. Equipped with a sensor, data-logging computer, radio transceiver, and GPS, MATTS is an inexpensive black box, no bigger than a deck of cards. Affixed to a container, it can store its location history and report it back when in range (up to 1 km) of an Internet-equipped ship, container terminal, or cell phone tower. Along the way, a record of that container’s route is monitored, and authorities can know immediately if anything has gone amiss.

MATTS can use its GPS chip to estimate its location even if the GPS signal is lost—storing data like computer “cookies.” Once operational, when a MATTS tag is deep below deck, its transmitter signal will “jump” from one tagged container to the next until it finds a shipboard communications path. Soon, through research and development sponsored by the DHS S&T Directorate, MATTS will also be integrated with an Advanced Container Security Device, which will send alerts through MATTS when a container has been tampered with or opened.

MATTS was developed under an S&T Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract by iControl Incorporated, a small Santa Clara, CA–based company.

“We’re looking at a serious threat here,” says Vinny Schaper, the SBIR Program manager. “Eleven million containers a year are brought onto our docks. Interrupt this with a terrorist attack, and the backup would reach around the globe.”

“This could be worldwide solution to a high-priority need,” says Bob Knetl, who manages the MATTS research in the Directorate’s Borders and Maritime Division.

In an April 2007 test, 100 MATTS-equipped containers started out in the Port of Yokohama, Japan, on their way to the Port of Los Angeles–Long Beach, CA, where they will continue by rail to Illinois and be trucked to their final destination in August. If all goes well, the test will demonstrate that the communications can be used internationally and that transitioning to land-based transportation runs smoothly.

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

Last Updated: 10/21/2021
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