Ports are naturally vulnerable and make attractive targets for criminals, terrorists and smugglers.
They are busy too – more than 11 million cargo containers enter the United States each year, but sometimes the danger lurks below the surface.
New technology under development is set to allow harbor security professionals to scan the hulls of vessels for threats, looking for bombs or drugs attached to the bottom of ships and boats.
Rich Granger of Battelle, an Ohio-based science and technology development organization, is the project manager for the “Harbor Shield” system.
“Objects of varying sizes and shapes attached in different ways. Things that shouldn’t be there. That’s what we’re looking for,” said Granger.
A series of underwater sensors scan the bottoms of ship’s hulls and relay that information to port security.
The project is funded by the Office of Naval Research and is being tested in the depths of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.
Underwater sonar sensors aim upward, collecting images from a passing vessel. The pictures are passed back to a control station and operators are able to take a look, in real time, and determine if there’s danger. “Ideally, you know what’s coming,” said Granger.
“The problem right now is the only way to scan a vessel is to stop it,” said Granger.
“For safety reasons you have to send a team of divers under there and that’s disruptive. It’s disruptive to commerce. It’s dangerous for the divers. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into necessarily, so what this does is it allows you to scan a vessel as it’s passing through so you don’t necessarily interrupt commerce, and yet you’re able to check for threats.”
The U.S. Coast Guard has underwater terrorism preparedness plans in place in all sectors. Underwater dive teams and remotely operated underwater vehicles help round out the agency’s approach to security.
“We are constantly looking for ways to stay ahead of our adversaries and how they may be thinking. If we can think of it, they can think of it,” said Kenneth McDaniel, Deputy Division Chief in the Coast Guard’s Office of Counterterrorism and Defense Operations.
Officials say they are interested in any new technology that helps protect America’s busy ports and reduce risks.
“We have seen indications in the past where narcotics or other types of criminal organizations have attached things to hulls of ships. Those are known as parasitic attachments. So we know that has occurred in the past and we are constantly looking for ways to combat that,” said McDaniel.
Security expert Jim Walsh of MIT’s Security Studies Program says that scanning the underside of vessels is just one part of a larger puzzle.
“What you’re trying to achieve is layer defense. You want to give your adversary lots of opportunities to fail, so this technology that looks at the bottom of ships is one piece of it but there’s no single technology that’s going to be the silver bullet that solves all our problems,” said Walsh, who believes emerging technologies and advancing computer applications will help keep America safe.
“We have to imagine what the terrorists might do and then try to close off as many of those avenues as possible. This is a cat and mouse game. We’ve seen how terrorists, over time, when they’ve tried to attack airlines, have shifted tactics, tried to look for vulnerabilities. Once we shut off one avenue, they look for another and so it’s smart to get ahead of that because it takes time to develop these technologies and sometimes they don’t work so well. They have to go back to the shop, so it’s good to think early.”
The “Harbor Shield” system is still in the research and testing phase, but if the technology proves successful developers say it could be deployed in a variety of harbors around the country, from naval facilities to domestic ports and river ways.