Shoe-box sensors to detect dirty bombs

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Sensors the size of a shoe box are set to solve shipping security problems, allowing so-called smart containers to detect possible dirty bombs.

Security fears forced Dubai Ports World to amend its purchase of P&O earlier this month so that it did not take control of the UK group's five port operations in the US, despite having received backing from President George Bush.

Now, in a bid to resolve such problems, researchers are developing a "mesh network" of smart cargo containers that will monitor not only their own contents but also those of "dumb" containers not equipped with such devices. However, the researchers at Accenture Technology Labs in the US say that such a network is viable only with international co-operation.

The sensors, which combine an ability to detect radiation and container tampering with GPS and other communication technology, are already available but their full potential has yet to be harnessed, says Accenture.

Currently, only 3 per cent of containers face a security check. Andrew Fano, a research director at Accenture Technology Labs, said: "If you are only going to inspect 3 per cent, which 3 per cent should it be?"

The Port of New York and New Jersey, which is part-run by P&O, last year saw 4.7 million cargo containers pass through its docks. The Port Authority is currently carrying out its own tests with smart containers, but this involves only 26 containers being shipped from Europe and the Middle East.

Mr Fano admits the cost of placing sensors on every container would be prohibitively high.

"Putting a sensor on every container was an implausible approach so the question was how much could you do with very little," he said.

Mr Fano said he was in discussions with shipping companies and government organisations but that the research was still at an early stage.