DOT tests e-seals on shipments

The Transportation Department has completed a test of new technology designed to assist in securing cargo containers at U.S. ports and border crossings, the department announced last week.

The test, conducted in the Pacific Northwest through DOT's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program, involved electronic seals, or e-seals. An e-seal is a radio frequency device that transmits shipment data as it passes a reader device and indicates whether the container it is attached to has been tampered with.

The e-seals are about the size of a deck of playing cards and weigh a little more than a pound each, said Chip Wood, DOT senior transportation specialist for the Secretary's Office of Intermodalism.

"They consist of a bolt that both locks the container when inserted into the seal body and serves as an antenna; a seal body that contains a computer chip for encoding information; and a battery for transmitting that information when queried by a reader," he said. "These disposable, passive 'read-only' devices cost as little as $10 per unit, which makes them far less expensive than reusable seals that can cost well over $500 apiece."

The testing began in the summer of 2000. However, the prototype e-seal had to be re-engineered to meet the requirements of the operational test. A year later, the devices had to be refurbished again in order to ensure reliable communication between the seals and the communication network.

By the fall of 2001, containers destined for Canada were regularly affixed with e-seals at the ports of Tacoma, Wash., and Seattle. The Puget Sound Regional Planning Commission, the Washington Trucking Association and the ports of Tacoma and Seattle participated in the project. The Federal Highway Administration's Office of Freight Management and Operations, the Office of Intermodalism and the Washington State Transportation Department provided funding for the tests.

"Through testing, we are learning to apply e-seals as part of a multilayered approach to improve transportation security," Wood said. "We are also learning how to integrate e-seals into the operations of federal agencies and private industry."

Most of the testing has been a success, but e-seals have limited signal strength and must be read at line-of-sight distances that do not exceed 70 feet. "This makes it difficult to read these particular seals in marine terminals or the holds of ships where the containers are stacked in close proximity where the signal may be blocked," Wood said.

DOT is likely to fund another round of e-seal tests that would build on the findings and technology platforms identified during the Pacific Northwest test, Wood said.

"We are still in the initial stages of testing e-seal components and how they interface with other elements of communication networks and transportation infrastructure," he said.

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