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Dodging detection delays

01 Sep 2007
Human error: the X-ray industry is working on removing the most time-consuming aspect of inspections - people-based interpretation

Human error: the X-ray industry is working on removing the most time-consuming aspect of inspections - people-based interpretation

Removing the human element could avoid the time-consuming interpretation of X-ray images, as Felicity Landon finds out

There is considerable pressure in the US for 100% X-ray inspection of incoming containers. But the big problem is time.

From a scanning perspective, it takes 20 seconds to scan a container, says Peter Kant of Rapiscan. “The part that takes time is that a person has to look at the image and make an interpretation. The present situation is similar to visiting the dentist – the X-ray is taken, and then the dentist inspects the image.”

What the shipping industry wants and what the Xray industry is trying to achieve is automatic detection. In this field, Rapiscan’s Neutron systems have been developed – although it is still early days for this technology.

In these types of scanning technologies, there are no images to inspect. The neutrons create gamma-ray signals when they interact with the elemental ingredients of the inspected object. The gamma-ray energies are unique to the elements in the inspected object. If the gamma-ray signatures match those in a threat database, the system automatically sends out an alarm.

So the system can be “set” to detect marijuana, or stainless steel, or C4 explosives. “However, at this stage the false alarm rate of this technology is very high, and the system is very expensive – where you might typically spend $2m on X-ray equipment at a US port, these new machines cost $15m, says Mr Kant. “They are still in the development stage.”

Some ports have started to use less sophisticated types of this technology – Rapiscan has Neutron systems in place in Taiwan and Malaysia, where very material-specific detection is required.

Automatic detection technology may still be very developmental, but Mr Kant says that the only way to get a higher level of inspection of containers is to remove the “human element.

“A higher percentage of containers shipping material will have to be inspected. That is being required globally, with the US requiring most. And the only way to keep the speed of commerce moving is to remove the most time-consuming aspect of the inspection, which is people-based interpretation.”

This would also remove the problems of boredom or fatigue which can undermine the efficiency of any system. Apart from regularly rotating staff away from the inspection screen, airports routinely introduce fake “threats” in order to keep their operators alert. Similar methods can be used in the port environment.

“After all, there are a lot of things you are looking for besides terrorism,” says Mr Kant. “For example, a container full of computer parts when they should be vehicle parts.”

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Dodging detection delays

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