A Numbers Game
License plate and container code recognition systems enhance border security
- By Meta Rotenberg
- Sep 01, 2008
In 2006, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers
inspected 422 million travelers and more than
132 million cars, trucks, buses, trains, vessels and
aircrafts. Customs officers inspected 1.19 million private
vehicles, 11.48 million trucks and more than 1 million
aircraft. On a typical day, Customs processes 70,200
truck, rail and sea containers. On the U.S.-Canadian border,
one truck crosses the border every 2.5 seconds—
representing 45,000 trucks per day.
This vehicle and container traffic poses both a
homeland security challenge in tracking the containers
and trucks as well as an efficiency and productivity
issue at border crossings. The massive cross-border
traffic of vehicles, and the need to check a vehicle’s
identity, causes bottlenecks at many crossing points.
When the vehicle is a truck carrying a container, the
container also needs to be identified and registered. At
marine borders, where the crossing points are ports,
container traffic is immense.
In August 2004, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at the
annual Border Governors Conference that “one of the
greatest challenges faced by those of us who live along
our border is striking a balance between increased security
demands and maintaining the free flow of trade.”
In Europe, 29 countries, including 25 European Union
states and four non-EU members (Iceland, Norway,
Liechtenstein and Switzerland), are bound to the full set
of rules in the Schengen Agreement, which requires participating
countries to remove all obstacles to the free
flow of traffic between participating countries. Twentyfour
of the nations have fully implemented its provisions
Before the Schengen Agreement, citizens of Western
Europe could travel to neighboring countries by showing
their national ID card or passport at the border. Since the implementation of the rules, border posts have been
closed—and often demolished—between participating
countries. The cross-border traffic in the Schengen area
includes a large number of vehicles crossing daily
between the countries without stopping at the border
and, in fact, without border control.
Whether the borders are controlled or completely
open, there is significant vehicular traffic between countries.
Where the borders are still controlled, a thorough
check of each vehicle and truck causes unbearable bottlenecks.
Where the borders are open, such as in Europe, no
vehicle is checked by border control inspectors. However,
in certain cases, officials would like to know who is entering
their country without physically stopping and checking
the cars. How can this be done, and how can bottlenecks
at crossing points be avoided?
A New Solution
The solution is license plate recognition—a vision-based
mass surveillance method that uses optical character
recognition to read vehicle license plates. LPR systems
automatically capture vehicle license plate data and can
immediately verify it against known watch lists to flag
suspect or wanted vehicles. Results are provided in real
time and transferred immediately to security personnel or
police. LPR systems can be installed at fixed locations or
deployed as mobile units. For example, the SeeCar LPR
product line, developed by Hi-Tech Solutions, reads and
records alphanumeric codes for recognition of vehicle
license plates in many forms and languages.
At controlled borders, LPR systems can be
installed in border crossing lanes, automatically monitoring
the vehicles entering and exiting the country.
The data is used to record all entries and exits, to track
stolen cars and for other purposes. The system significantly
improves the flow of traffic at crossing checkpoints.
SeeLane, for instance, can typically handle
four traffic lanes.
Of course, use of LPR systems depends on the regulations
of each country. If, according to agreements
between the two border countries, citizens can enter with
minimal checking, LPR systems can reduce waiting
times from several minutes to several seconds per vehicle.
If both countries require a more thorough check, it
can reduce the waiting time to a few minutes per vehicle.
In both cases, the checking and recording of the vehicle
is done while it is still moving in the lane. When the
vehicle arrives at the checkpoint, the inspector already
knows if it was flagged as suspicious and the license
plate number has been recorded.
Where the borders are open and the vehicles are not
stopped or checked, LPR systems can be installed on
gantries or alongside the road and can capture the license
plate number of each vehicle entering the country. Thus,
if a number is flagged after being compared to a database,
nearby police can be alerted and stop the suspicious
car down the road.
One major concern of border crossing authorities is
whether trucks crossing the border are carrying something
other than their manifests indicate, such as people,
drugs or contraband materials. Without automatic
means of detection, manual searches are necessary,
requiring time and manpower—and often leading to
mistakes and bribes.
One way to check a vehicle’s contents is to weigh it
and see if its actual weight matches the manifest. If the
vehicle weighs more or less, the inspector will know
something is off. The fastest and most non-intrusive way
to weigh vehicles is with weigh-in-motion devices that
record vehicle weights as they drive over a sensor. Since
the weigh-in-motion system weighs the vehicle without
requiring it to stop, an automatic identification system is needed to identify and record it. Unless the vehicle is
carrying an RFID tag, the only way to identify and
record it automatically is with an LPR system.
If a vehicle is carrying a container, or if the location in
question is a marine border crossing point, the answer to
automatic identification of the container is the Container
Code Recognition system, which is based on optical
character recognition technology. CCR systems automatically
read container code numbers for a variety of
container handling and security applications. HTS’
experience with numerous ports worldwide shows that
automatic CCR technology reduces bottlenecks and prevents
mistakes in handling and storing containers. In
addition, the ability to track and verify containers and
vehicles automatically contributes to the port’s security
and helps identify suspicious containers.
The massive growth of worldwide container traffic is
putting pressure on port operations to improve efficiency,
particularly in those areas that cannot be physically
expanded in line with this growth. Many entry and exit
gates to port facilities are constrained by these practical
issues and face additional congestion and delays. In
addition, there have been increased security requirements
(primarily by the U.S. government), such as the
Secure Freight Initiative, the Megaports Project and the
Second Line of Defense Program. These factors increase
pressure to handle growing container traffic, hold down
costs and meet heightened security needs.
The CCR-based automatic inspection begins at the
harbor gate, where it can be integrated with a
OCR/video gate system that handles trucks and containers
as they pass through port gates or other truck inspection
stations. A CCR system can read container numbers,
chassis and vehicle license plate numbers as each
passes through a lane. HTS’ SeeGate2 system reads the
container code number and size/type from both sides
and the rear and top. It also reads the license plate and,
optionally, the chassis number from both sides and IMO
labels while capturing full four-side container color
images for damage inspection applications.
If the container is loaded on a train, the CCR system
should automatically read and record the container code
numbers when the train enters or exits the port. SeeTrain
reads container numbers from both sides and the rear,
reads single-stack and dual-stack container configurations,
supports bidirectional travel on rails and can integrate
with rail car number readers.
Border control agencies must balance strict security
requirements with the prevention of bottlenecks. LPR
devices and container code recognition systems can contribute
to this balance—enhancing security while easing
pressure on border crossing terminals