A Numbers Game

License plate and container code recognition systems enhance border security

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.”

Open Borders
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 so far.

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.

Special Considerations
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.

Cargo Tracking
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 and checkpoints.

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