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U.S. Customs and Border Protection: new scanning equipment is a ‘game changer’

Non-intrusive cargo inspections will allow a look inside 50 trucks an hour instead of seven

(Photo credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is replacing and expanding its fleet of non-intrusive X-ray scanning machines used to look inside truck trailers and containers entering the country’s ports of entry.

The machines allow CBP officers to view the contents inside these freight transport conveyances for narcotics, weapons and other hidden contraband without having to open them. If suspicious cargo is discovered, the trailer or container can be pulled aside for physical inspection.

An operational benefit to the new non-intrusive inspection equipment is that truck drivers no longer need to exit their cabs during the scanning process, which allows CBP to review 50 trucks an hour versus seven with the older scanning equipment. “This will be a game changer for us,” Owen said.

The agency currently has a fleet of 280 non-intrusive scanning machines, with 118 operating at ports of entry along the southern border with Mexico, 57 at northern border ports of entry and the remainder in the nation’s seaports.

“Some of these systems are quite old and reaching the end of their life cycle,” said Todd Owen, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, at the agency’s trade symposium in Chicago on July 24.

He said the average lifespan for these machines is generally 10 years because they mostly operate in harsh operating environments and weather.

For the past two years, Congress has stepped up funding appropriations for CBP to replace and expand its non-intrusive inspection fleet. In fiscal year 2018, the agency received $224 million, which was followed by $560 million in fiscal year 2019.

Owen said the funding currently is being used to replace 51 existing machines and add 181 new systems. Once these acquisitions are complete, CBP will have 461 units throughout the country’s ports of entry. 

“We need to add more [cargo inspection] capacity to meet the demands of the growing economy and hope Congress will continue to support us in the 2020 budget cycle,” Owen said.

Owen said the newer scanners are much safer and their radiation output is “well below the standards of a typical X-ray,” but he added that “safety is paramount to everything we’re doing.”

Truckers still have the option to step out of their cabs during the scanning process, he said.

Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.