Less than five percent of shipping containers are scanned when they arrive at ports, making them susceptible to smuggling. In response to a Department of Homeland Security request, the University of Maine and Georgia Tech began working on solutions to monitor containers from the moment they’re sealed until they reach their final destinations. The University of Maine is attempting to create a composite container with embedded sensor technology. Meanwhile Georgia Tech worked on a monitoring system that could detect if a shipping container was opened en-route.

“Right now, there are no mechanisms to monitor cargo accurately. But with the technology we’re developing, if even a small hole is drilled, it will show us,” says Gisele Bennett, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech Research Institute. “The system is a series of sensors embedded into the walls, door and floor of the container that will monitor when a breach occurs. Then, GPS will tell us exactly where it occurred.”

However, the delicate nature of the electronic equipment posed a problem in shifting cargo. Bennett’s group needed a stable material in which to embed the security system. So last year the two schools teamed to create an alternative to metal shipping containers.

Composites + Steel Solution

“It’s hard to embed sensors into steel. It’s heavy, the contents shift around and the sensor system would break long before it had time to work in a shipping environment, says Habib Dagher, director of the AEWC (Advanced Structures & Composites Center) at the University of Maine. “Imagine a huge fork lift banging around these containers. They love to use the side of containers as a guide as they bring more containers in. Plus, a stack of containers can weigh 300 tons; imagine being the bottom container. We had to design a container that was strong enough to handle its load as well as that of others without generating false alarms within the sensor system.” Dagher also faced the problem that this type of work had never been done before. His team tried to find anyone else who had made a composite shipping container, and if so what did they do? What were the pitfalls and why didn’t they succeed? “We knew if we didn’t address these problems, we wouldn’t have a project,” says Dagher. “If we made it cost-effective but not durable enough, the container might not hold up to the rigors of the shipping environment. We had to find a way to reduce the cost of the composite container and not fall apart.”