SAIC gives border agents X-ray vision

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The border agents in Otay Mesa, Calif., are equipped with technology manufactured by Science Applications International Corp. that allows them to virtually look inside a truck by capturing an image on a computer of what is there. That has proven to be an invaluable tool to inspect the 3,000 trucks heading from Mexico to the United States daily.

"A first-time importer is automatically going to get stopped for a secondary search," said Patrick Talese, assistant port director in Otay Mesa. Other signs are also used to flag suspicious cargo for extra scrutiny, he said.

That secondary search is conducted using SAIC's Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS). U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection officials have purchased 127 of these devices for about $1 million each and are using them at both the northern and southern borders to inspect the contents of trucks, railroad cars and ship containers.

"It is a way to get inside a truck without unloading it," Talese said. Although the Otay Mesa port and others had X-ray technology to take a picture of a truck, customs officials pushed ahead with expanding the VACIS program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said.

The technology is housed in a container that emits a narrow beam of gamma rays. The beam penetrates a moving object, such as a rail car or truck. The particles emerging from the vehicle are captured by a computer and read, generating an image similar to an X-ray.

But that's where the similarity ends. SAIC has developed software that can analyze images to determine if there is something fishy about a vehicle's contents — a round object, for example, when everything else is square; a false wall that might hide contraband or illegal aliens; or material that shows up denser in the picture than the rest of the cargo.

The inspection takes sec-onds, and the image is stored in a computer database in the event of a problem later.

Since it has been deployed, the system has inspected nearly 2 million commercial shipments, according to Douglas Browning, deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Homeland Security Department.

Without this kind of Superman vision, it could take hours to inspect and clear cargo, delaying retail goods or complicating the delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables before they rot. Customs officials are working to keep the goods moving.

"A two-hour delay for a truck is very costly," Talese said. "We're not here to stop the economy."

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