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A smart container made from scratch will do much more than detect if its main seal has been breached. For example, if an intruder tries to cut or drill through its sides, light and motion sensors inside can communicate with the seal, which can transmit a tamper alert either via the Internet or by setting off a light or sound alarm. In the future, additional sensors could detect chemicals, radiation, and the residue of explosives. Such a container would have “a mayday’ capability, in which it can recognize an unacceptable condition and report its identity, location, and condition,” says Michael Wolfe, principal of the North River Consulting Group of North Marshfield, MA, which advises government and industry on security technologies.

But even the smartest containers may still need inspections: an inspector who learns that a container has been breached might need to find out what has been placed inside. Today’s technologies, however, are inadequate for detecting the biggest threat: a nuclear bomb or radioactive “dirty bomb.”

One possible solution: a gamma ray detector with an additional imaging component that reveals the shape of the materials emitting radiation. That’s what a group led by Richard Lanza, a nuclear engineer at MIT, has prototyped. It’s an array of small detectors that collect gamma rays and produce a fine energy spectrum that gets processed into a faint image of the radiating object.

This allows inspectors to identify innocent materials that give off small amounts of radiation-like certain medical supplies or objects made from granite-without wasting time on manual inspections. Prototypes of the detectors are currently being tested at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA.

Deployment will depend on the outcome of these tests, but the MIT device is part of an ambitious vision for the future of nuclear-explosives detection, says Richard Wagner, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who is helping evaluate new detection technologies for the federal government. “Eventually we hope to deploy hundreds of thousands of detectors,” everywhere from seaports to highway border crossings, he says. Such a grand scheme might cost $10 billion; but the cost of detecting a nuclear bomb, clearly, is much cheaper than the cost of letting one through.

Securing Containers
Savi Technology
(Sunnyvale, CA)
Electronic seals and smart cargo containers
NaviTag Technologies
(North Quincy, MA)
Electronic seals and tracking devices that use satellites
(Addison, TX)
Chemical-based intrusion detection using seals and handheld sensors
Argonne National
(Argonne, IL)
New detector to find nuclear materials in containers
(Cambridge, MA)
Radiation detector with imaging capability

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