Customs and Border Protection (CBP) earlier this month deployed American Science and Engineering’s [ASEI] Z Portal vehicle screening system at the San Ysidro, Calif., point of entry at the border with Mexico for a 30-day operational assessment and the initial results have been good,

The Z Portal system began operating at San Ysidro on Oct. 10 as a secondary inspection tool for passenger vehicles coming into San Diego County from Mexico and in just the first few days of operation uncovered more than 3,000 pounds of narcotics hidden in different vehicles, Patrick Simmons, director of CBP’s Non Intrusive Inspection division, tells TR2. The system also discovered a stowaway in a vehicle, he says.

“I would say it’s been a very successful debut,” Simmons says. “I firmly believe that…we already can see the results are going to be very satisfying. Our decision now is going to be the path forward.”

That way ahead will depend on how CBP allocates its FY ’09 procurement budget. “We’re going through our procurement cycles on what to place where,” Simmons says.

The ongoing operational test of the Z Portal at San Ysidro is the first time CBP has used this system. The Z Portal is a multi-view, drive through X-Ray screening system based on backscatter imaging technology.

CBP currently has many different types of imaging systems it uses for secondary screening of vehicles at land points of entry but the Z Portal is the first that allows a vehicle’s occupants to remain in the car, truck or van. Letting the occupants remain in their vehicle speeds throughput, Simmons says. Moreover, he adds, the system also screens the individuals while they remain in the vehicle to see if they are carrying any contraband as well.

In a fact sheet on the Z Portal, CBP says that compared to other imaging technology it uses, “the Z Portal provides a much clearer image of low density objects that may be hidden in car fenders, tires, trunks, gas tanks, or under the hood.”

Simmons says the Z Portal provides a real time scan that just takes a few seconds to analyze for a trained operator. The multi-view system provides images from the left, right and top-down.

Unlike AS&E’s backscatter-based SmartCheck personnel imaging system that the Transportation Security Administration is testing at some airports for secondary screening of passengers at checkpoints, the Z Portal does not provide body detail of person’s inside a vehicle, the company says.

While the Z Portal offers promising screening possibilities, Simmons says that it’s just one tool CBP will have in its Non Intrusive Inspection screening operations. Existing screening systems for inspecting passenger vehicles are still necessary, he says. For example, when shipments of cars come in from over the border or overseas and need to be screened, then CBP will use its current approach which is to line the vehicles up and drive a mobile screening system along the row.

Simmons says that NII technology is “exploding” now, Simmons says. Competition between the various companies developing and producing NII systems is resulting in better equipment, he says.

“Probably the most exciting thing that we are looking at now is the advent of the high-energy machinery that gives us a much higher resolution image,” he says.

The Say Ysidro Border Station where the Z Portal is deployed is the busiest land port of entry in the country. About 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians enter the U.S. daily from Mexico.