Air cargo security: Canine screening advances

Air cargo, security, canine screening

North American authorities are embracing canine screening by certified private providers. Ian Putzger examines how the programme is progressing, as well as other technologies in the air cargo screening market.

Dogs are finally in action at US air cargo facilities. The long-awaited four-legged reinforcements for air cargo security efforts commenced work on 2 January this year.

Owing to the US government shutdown, which rendered the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) unavailable for clarification on questions and concerns, the programme got off to a wobbly start, but this could not dent the widespread sense of relief that it is finally in place.

“It’s been a long road. The industry has been advocating private canine screening for a decade,” says Marc Murphy, director of air cargo and aviation at MSA Security, the first provider that obtained certification from the TSA for its canine programme.

MSA has used canine teams for screening in other jurisdictions for more than four years, and Murphy reports that it has been very successful. “We feel canine is the most effective way of screening, particularly when it comes to cargo,” he says.

Looking at his company’s use of canine screening in Europe, David Clark, head of safety and security at handling firm Worldwide Flight Services (WFS), concurs.

“It’s proven effective and efficient,” he comments. “The only downsides are some limitations on physical shipment heights that can be ‘sniffed’ safely by dogs and that our four-legged friends are ‘non-compliant’ if they have a cold.”

One operator at Miami International Airport brought in dogs from another city when its screening technology broke down, reports Mark O. Hatfield Jr, director of public safety and security at the Metro Dade Aviation Department, which manages the airport.

“Third-party canine services add a new dimension to security screening. They add flexibility and capability, and increase throughput and speed,” he says.

The Canadian authorities are moving in the same direction as their southern neighbours. A working group has been set up to develop a canine air cargo screening programme. According to one party involved in this, Transport Canada aims to have the regime up and running by the end of this year.

The TSA has issued strict guidelines for programme implementation, but according to Murphy, they are very much workable Guidelines accommodate different cargo screening environments, sort methods, climates and facility set-ups.

“Before we deploy a team, we do a pre-canine utilisation assessment, Murphy says, adding that he highly recommends this for any facility where canine screening is under consideration.

“The rise of e-commerce has changed requirements for cargo facility design, but it has no impact on canine inspection, according to Murphy. “The configuration doesn’t matter as long as the dogs get access to odour,” he says.

The very appeal of canine screening could be an Achilles heel, though, remarks Brandon Fried, executive director of the US Airforwarders Association, who has been a tireless and vocal advocate for the use of private canine screening.

Air cargo security, canine screening
Sniffer dog deployed for air freight security

“We may well see a demand spike. Ultimately, we could have a shortage of canines,” he remarks. Finding enough suitable dogs is not an easy task.

A cargo warehouse is not an ideal working environment for animals, given the amount of movement and noise levels. Some qualified dogs are not suitable for that environment.

MSA aims to get 200 teams or more certified and operational this year. “The programme requires a certain amount of training for certification. In addition, we have our own training requirements,” says Murphy.

“The barriers to entry are high. The TSA is not going to allow just any dog team to scan freight,” remarks Fried, adding that certification updates will be required frequently.

At this point it is unclear who will embrace canine screening. Fried reckons that the integrated carriers, as well as airlines and large handling companies, will go for this, whereas forwarders will likely have their cargo screened at the airport.

To be eligible for canine screening, forwarders and shippers have to be registered in the TSA’s Certified Cargo Screening Programme (CCSP), he points out. “Interest across the spectrum of the industry is extremely strong. They all see the benefits,” remarks Murphy.

Clark cautions that canine screening is not a silver bullet but part of a multi-layered security system. “We’ve been investing in other solutions. Canine should align with those,” he says.

“For every technique there are limitations,” comments Hatfield. For more than three years now, he and his team at Miami have been focused on an initiative that takes a holistic approach to cargo security, from access control and personnel vetting to better lighting, strengthen fences and stepping up patrols.

He would like to see progress with screening technology that can check full pallets, which would produce considerable time savings over the current need to break these down for screening. “Today there are large tunnel x-ray scanners available to screen cargo of this size, however, the regulations at present preclude these solutions from being used due to the requirements to detect threats of a particular type and size.”

Cameron Mann, global market director for aviation at Smiths Detection, observes: “The larger the cargo, especially if it is mixed, the more complex the image is to evaluate. The security measures in place today are reflective of the balance between detection and package size and type. The increasing use of AI will support operators in making better decisions.”

MSA offers a patented advanced alarm resolution process that combines canine screening with technology for a layered approach, whereby a dog checks the cargo in the first step.

air cargo security: Brandon Fried, executive director of US Airforwarders Association
Ultimately, we could have a shortage of canines, remarks Fried

If the animal indicates a potential threat, the identified package is extracted and x-rayed. If necessary, the suspicious x-ray image can be transmitted to the MSA Emergency Operations Centre, which is operational 24/7/365 for real-time analysis and resolution.

In 2017, Smiths Detection was the first security solutions provider to receive TSA approval under the agency’s elevated security requirements for an explosives trace detection system.

The company’s IONSCAN 600 is a portable desktop trace detection system that spots minute quantities of explosives, as well as narcotics like Fentanyl, within seconds.

The Fentanyl epidemic in the US has put drug detection higher on the agenda for cargo screening, as mail and parcels have been identified as popular channels for the distribution of the drug.

For Hatfield this is high on the radar. “We have partnered with law enforcement to try to stem the flow of that. As an airport we can play a support role, for example through infrastructure like CCTV to assist sting operations,” he remarks.

According to Mann, the IONSCAN 600 has been in demand across the industry. “Air cargo operators look for certified capabilities to solve their compliance and inspection requirements across a broad range of goods to be screened,” he comments.

The rise of e-commerce has also produced concerns about lithium batteries and other hazardous materials and substances getting into cargo holds because of incorrect documentation and packaging.

“Lithium batteries are certainly an industry issue, and one that does concern everybody,” says Hatfield.

Smiths Detection unveiled a lithium battery detection solution last year that can be combined with x-ray scanners. Detection software hosted on an external evaluation computer analyses content and identifies any detected batteries.

The algorithms in the software use a large image library that Smiths built in collaboration with customers so they can learn to detect other items. The security provider has established close partnerships with its customers who ship diverse lithium-ion batteries, Mann reports.

“The key is to work closely with the shipping distributors to gather huge amounts of relevant data to enable reliable detection with low false alarm rates. Our detection equipment has a proven strong performance, achieving Li-Ion detection rates of more than 90 per cent at some of our key customer sites,” he says.

Owing to the risk they pose to aircraft, lithium batteries have drawn the most attention, but they are just one item on a lengthening list of threats that the air cargo industry is looking to tackle with certified technologies, he remarks, adding that AI is going to play an important role.

“Smiths Detection sees the use of AI through its screening platforms continuing to increase as we unlock the potential of the data captured during the screening process. We have already expanded beyond Li-Ion batteries to weapons, knives and blunt objects in passenger screening, and are working with the air cargo industry to prioritise their requirements,” he says.

Even without the inclusion of elements like drugs and hazardous substances in the screening process, the air cargo security landscape keeps shifting.

Tigers Inc, a provider of technology-enabled supply chain solutions, recently invested in state-of-the-art x-ray equipment, explosive trace detection units and an electro-magnetic detection machine, in preparation for a new nationwide mandate for piece-level screening of all air cargo export goods from Australia.

In the US, further changes in security requirements are looming on the horizon. “Congress is calling for a known shipper review and a review of CCSP this year. This is going to be a year of looking back on past policies, and deciding where improvements need to be made,” says Fried.

Participation in the CCSP scheme has flagged in recent years, but canine screening may inject fresh interest, he reckons. “I believe this will be a shot in the arm for CCSP.”

The US tightened air cargo security measures last year with the implementation of the mandate to submit advance cargo manifest information for all inbound air cargo shipments from overseas origins prior to loading. According to Fried, the change did not produce any significant disruptions.

“A lot of our larger members were involved in the process, so changes were very transparent. Small forwarders overseas rely on the airline to get it done and pay for it,” he says.

To his dismay, communication with the TSA is facing problems. Citing financial constraints, the agency has moved to limit access to its web platforms to Microsoft Internet Explorer 11 browsers. Companies that use other web browsers like Google Chrome, Apple Safari or Mozilla Firefox have experienced problems navigating on the TSA platform.

Fried stresses the need to maintain multiple access options to make sure industry members can communicate adequately with the agency. “Inclusiveness makes our programmes more successful,” he says.

Clark emphasises the need for increased collaboration on technological developments and the future of air cargo screening.

“The threat landscape isn’t getting any better and we need to find smart ways of ensuring the highest quality of security provision while keeping cargo moving efficiently,” he comments.

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