SAN ANTONIO, Texas—With more than half a billion dollars provided by Congress in fiscal year 2019 for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to spend on technology to scan vehicles and cargo entering the U.S. at land ports of entry, the agency plans to begin bringing this technology forward in the inspection process so it can be applied to screen more cars and trucks to enhance security without impacting the flow of legitimate commerce and traffic, a CBP official said on Wednesday.

CBP already has contracts with multiple vendors that provide multi-energy non-intrusive inspection (NII) systems and later this year expect to begin testing the various systems in both laboratory and operational environments to understand their capabilities and any gaps, Garrett Reinhart, the Large Scale NII Branch Chief for Cargo and Conveyance Security at CBP, said at the annual Border Security Expo.

The multi-energy systems, which could consist of backscatter and traditional X-ray technologies, provide better images for operators to review and allow for more vehicles and trucking containers to be screened per hour.

Reinhart said that CBP will be testing the NII systems in pre-primary inspection locations for vehicles seeking to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Currently, CBP uses legacy NII equipment on secondary inspection locations to scan passenger vehicles and trucks for illicit goods. The older technology screens up to 15 trucking containers per hour in secondary inspection while the multi-energy systems are expected to allow up to 80 containers to be screened per hour in pre-primary inspection applications.

Rapiscan’s drive-through Z Portal NII system used by CBP. Photo: Rapiscan

The testing of the large-scale NII systems will occur in the Laredo, Texas, area where CBP has a number of ports of entry that it operates to facilitate inbound and outbound vehicle and pedestrian traffic. In part through the deployment of new NII equipment in pre-primary inspection lanes, combined with other evaluations such as facial recognition technology to identify travelers in vehicles and pedestrians passing through checkpoints, CBP is testing “model port” concepts in the Laredo area of operations.

The Laredo area ports have the largest installed base of large-scale NII systems in the U.S., Bradd Skinner, CBP’s assistant director for Trade in Laredo, said during the panel. He said CBP’s officers that operate the NII equipment for the pilot testing will be providing feedback to vendors

Congress appropriated $564 million for NII technologies at land ports of entry in the FY ’19 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security. Reinhart, who was part of a panel discussion on model ports, said CBP has up to five years to spend the money. He said CBP will be buying the multi-energy portal systems, which don’t require truck drivers to exit their vehicles during scanning operations, over the next several years.

CBP doesn’t have contracts in place yet for the NII equipment it plans to test for scanning passenger vehicles in pre-primary locations at ports of entry. Testing will help the agency ensure that “security gaps are tight,” Reinhart said. Procurements will take place over the next “couple years,” he said, adding that in that timespan is when deployments will occur in Texas.

Like with the multi-energy portals for inspecting containers, CBP wants to pilot test portal systems to inspect passenger vehicles to understand gaps and capabilities in the systems, he said.

Currently, CBP doesn’t used NII equipment to screen passenger vehicles leading to the primary inspection points, just for secondary screening. Putting passenger vehicle scanning portals into the primary traffic lanes will allow for more screening of vehicles and greater throughput overall, Reinhart said.

He said 95 percent of the seizures related to illegal activity in passenger vehicles are made based on NII scans in secondary inspection operations currently.

Pushing the NII technology out ahead of primary inspections from just the secondary inspection operations will also result in more seizures if illicit goods and contraband coming into the U.S. that aren’t caught because they haven’t been flagged for secondary screening, Reinhart said.

CBP has also been investigating advanced security and process management software platforms under its Common Viewer effort that can tie in NII platforms and from different manufacturers, eliminating stovepipes that come with relying on each manufacturer’s security system to view inspection images. This, and other technology enhancements, will free up manpower so that more officers can focus on enforcement operations rather than administrative work, Reinhart said.

CBP has been testing security management platforms from several vendors for the past 12 to 18 months under the Common Viewer effort.

The Common Viewer platforms will also enable more efficient and greater information sharing.

Walter Weaver, port director for the Port of Progreso in the Laredo area, said that currently with fixed and mobile NII systems, the image is only available at the site. To be shared, the image has to be downloaded and printed, “which is not an efficient process,” he said. With Common Viewer, the image can be shared more widely and quickly, he said.

Reinhart said that Common Viewer “has the potential tie endless countries together” to share data about cargo departing and entering countries. For example, he said, the image of a conveyance screened in Guatemala can be shared with U.S. Customs officials who capture an image of the same conveyance and then compare the two.