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Safeguarding Shipping Profitably

A project to secure cargo containers from seaport to seaport shows that RFID can track shipments with 100 percent accuracy, improve safety and deliver some compelling financial benefits to importers.
By Jonathan Collins
Jan 19, 2004More than 17,000 containers—roughly 80 percent of all U.S. imports—enter the United States by ship each year, yet U.S. customs and security officials open and inspect less than 2 percent of the containers arriving at seaports. The inability to check all of the containers represents a gaping hole in the nation’s domestic security. Government officials are concerned that terrorists could exploit the lack of security at ports by sneaking weapons of mass destruction into the country.

Goods were tracked as they reached Seattle-Tacoma


Security experts, government officials and supply chain operators say that when it comes to the process of checking and securing containers the greatest vulnerability comes from the human element. There aren’t enough people to open and inspect every container and to determine accurately which containers have been tampered with.

To address this security risk, the Strategic Council on Security Technology, an international organization composed of executives from port operators and logistics technology providers as well as former U.S. military leaders and public officials, launched the first phase of the Smart and Secure Trade Lanes (SST) project to demonstrate how RFID could be used to secure and track containers and safeguard international shipping lanes.

The goal was to deliver a framework and technology that would not be prohibitively expensive for ports to deploy but still meet new initiatives and programs established by U.S. government agencies—including the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT)—as well as international organizations working to improve the security of the global supply chain.

While the U.S. government supported the project, the world's three largest seaport operators—Hutchison-Whampoa, PSA Corp. and P&O Ports, which together account for 70 percent of all goods shipped to the United States—were the strongest proponents of SST. They allotted a combined US$8 million to the project to deploy the necessary RFID network and the SST’s first phase, which was built and tested from July 2002 through June 2003. Overall, the trial tracked the shipment of 818 containers carrying real goods leaving three overseas ports (Hong Kong, Rotterdam and Singapore) and arriving at one U.S. port (Seattle-Tacoma). The project monitored a total of 18 different trade lanes. Each trade lane covers a full shipment route, which can include collection and delivery of containers by road or rail before and after departure from the ports.

A total of 65 companies participated in the project. RFID equipment maker Savi Technology acted as technical lead, getting global support from companies such as Parsons Brinckerhoff, Qualcomm, SAIC, COPAS, Sembcorp Logistics, LINE and Symbol. The participants deployed a single information network that tightly coupled the chain of custody (the progression of companies that take responsibility for the delivery of a container during shipment) to a chain of information (the process by which information about a container is handed over as responsibility for a container moves from one shipping company to another) in real time using RFID for automated data collection.

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