Advanced technologies make it increasingly easier for Customs to determine what is behind container doors. Without unbolting a lock or breaking a seal...

Dutch Customs is always looking for new ways of conducting its supervision and reducing the inspection burden for trade and industry. This autumn, for example, the port of Rotterdam will see a lot of experimenting going on with an advanced inspection line – packed with so many scanning and detection technologies that it is unparalleled. It is to help the service arrive at even more certain conclusions about the possible dangers of cargo.

Factually, Customs revolves around one single fundamental question: what is inside the container? The agency does everything it can to find out what is behind those countless steel walls on quays, in depots and at terminals, preferably without unbolting a lock or breaking a seal. As opening container doors – something which is done at a separate control location – means extra work, delays, costs. Considerable efforts are therefore undertaken to identify which cargo has a genuine risk linked to it; the proverbial needle in a haystack. For example, more and more extensive use is made of available information – about goods, about consignors and consignees, about routes taken – which are swiped through increasingly discerning risk profiles, and on which increasingly smarter algorithms are released. Big data analytics, however, is only one of the pillars on which Dutch Customs’ strategy rests, in these times of ever-expanding goods flows…

The service’s enforcement philosophy, Pushing Boundaries, equally values the deployment of ultramodern scanning and detection means. The establishment of permanent, state-of-the-art scanning installations at all major terminals of Maasvlakte 2 has already partly given shape to this vision. Many containers put through the port of Rotterdam can now be assessed without too much difficulty and with a high degree of certainty as to whether the contents are okay or not. However, there is of course always room for improvement, especially given the enormous pace at which science and technology are progressing. This is why Customs participates in various international research projects in which new technologies are unfolded, and existing ones are being fine-tuned. Including currently the European project C-BORD – in full: Effective Container Inspection at Border Control Points. A broad consortium of customs services, knowledge institutes, universities and industrial partners is working under this umbrella on a colourful palette of non-intrusive control instruments, all integrated into one single passage for trucks. Following tests at logistical hotspots in Hungary and Poland, this line is currently being tested at a customs location right in the maritime heart of the Netherlands. Special consideration is thereby given to narcotics and nuclear goods.

How exactly does C-BORD work? As soon as a truck enters the gate, it will be subjected to a whole range of technologies. A part or a combination of parts of the inspection line will each time be activated per type of goods and per type of selection, meaning the type of risk that Customs has identified. Analysis of the air from the container, for instance, takes place using sensors. This is followed by passive radiation detection, which determines whether radiation can be detected near the cargo. The best-known element, classic X-ray scan technology, has been added to the C-BORD arsenal, however, in the most optimised form. Until recently, scan images literally showed everything – each and every present object in one single frame. With the latest generation of scanning facilities it will soon be possible to visually ‘peel’ containers – to filter them layer by layer, and to thus screen them meter by meter. This will allow Customs to inspect the cargo much more accurately than was previously the case.

The steps mentioned may give rise to further inspection. For example, when a significant radiation value is detected. Most of these reports arise from natural resources. However, it may also happen that radioactive materials are deliberately being smuggled, whereby such a consignment is transported in a shielded manner to avoid being discovered. In such (rare) cases, second-tier photofission measurement may offer a solution: a new technique whereby an x-ray bundle is briefly aimed at one single position, after which secondary radiation is released and collected. This forms, as it were, a fingerprint of the present cargo – very useful for the identification of heavy metals, such as uranium or plutonium.
The just recently developed neutron scanner largely operates according to the same principles. This tool – which is also deployed in the second tier – is specifically adapted to recognising organic substances, particularly narcotics and drug precursors. A device that seems to be perfect for the port of Rotterdam, where the smuggling of cocaine in particular has been a serious problem for decades.

All in all, this mix of technical gadgets in the C-BORD set-up shall help to confirm or refute suspicions involving selected freight in a relatively simple and quick manner. In the case of the risk of narcotics, four out of five built-in control procedures are needed to draw a final conclusion on suspicious cargo; the risk of nuclear materials needs three procedures. One by one, the modules along the route provide particles of information that together support this final assessment. Ultimately, this sum should lead to a decrease in the number of unjustified movements of goods from terminals to customs posts. Pure profit for government and entrepreneurs, as for both sides goes: the fewer containers to unload, the better.

Does Customs hold a watertight control system with C-BORD for the future? No. Even when the results of the test exceed every expectation, this still is not a flawless system. Simply, as there shall always be a certain margin of error, and, as such, scope for improvement. Recognising that there cannot be 100% certainty and effectiveness in supervision, the agency nevertheless tries to move forward – partly by participating in projects with a high-technology content such as C-BORD. Indeed, as one of the most innovative customs authorities in the world, the organisation has a reputation to keep up.

From prototype to production technology
It shall certainly take years for a C-BORD-like inspection line to actually be in operation somewhere in the world. This relates primarily to the fact that the test set-up has included a number of relatively new methods and techniques. X-ray scanning and radiation detection have long since been part of the enforcement palette of Customs; suppliers of this equipment can adapt their products to new insights in a relatively short time. This is different for neutron scanning and photofission – applications that the service now uses for the first time. The instruments that are deployed for this are prototypes. For these prototypes to evolve towards ready-made commercial products, there is still a long way to go.

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