Today in the world millions of shipping containers constantly travel and cross national borders. Cargo containers are considered as a weak link in the supply chain as they can be potentially exploited to defraud customs, introduce illicit cargo and breach security protocols. Within this context, a number of national and international programmes and agreements have been drafted to limit the potential for miss-use of intermodal containers.
The JRC is studying the feasibility of deploying new technologies, such as the use of composite materials fitted with embedded sensors which can detect possible threats and wirelessly communicate their status to competent authorities. The aim is to improve security and ease customs operations, allowing a more comprehensive monitoring without manual inspection or screening.
With this context, the JRC provides direct support to the Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union in matters relating to Risk Management and Security of the Supply Chain, underpinning the international agreements between EU and international counterparts, such as the EU-USA Joint Statement on Supply Chain Security of 2011.
The development of multifunctional composite containers requires technical advances in many different fields (e.g. electronics, structural mechanics, and energy harvesting techniques), as well as developments in materials science combined with advanced design and production of composite elements.
The JRC is active in the following research areas:
- EU policy and techno-economic aspects of intermodal container shipping
- composite materials
- sensor networks deployment
- data analysis.
The aim is to design and develop sturdy and commercially viable prototypes that would allow the relevant authorities to ascertain more easily the security status of containers and their contents.
The combination of the structural manufacturing and design flexibility of advanced composites, allied to the wide variety of miniaturized sensor technologies, opens up the possibility of manufacturing multi-functional structural components that had, hitherto, not been possible.
In the area of composites materials technologies, the research takes advantage of the JRC’s past experience in composite materials to develop embedded piezo-polymer systems and test their capacity to detect and wirelessly transmit relevant mechanical and thermal perturbations of containers.
In parallel to these experiments, in 2014 a prototype modular container was designed and assembled to study the development of economically viable fully composite containers. At the ELSA Laboratory a nearly 100% composite container was developed and is under testing.
The potential techno-economic implications in the event of manufacturing millions of composite containers and the implications for costing of such containers and the prospect for European Industry are also considered.
Wireless sensors network
The current research not only considers the development of the composite-embedded sensors, per se, but also the manner in which these systems would act, communicate and interact as part of a network. The types of networks of interconnected ‘smart’ containers are investigated with tests on distributed wireless sensor networks using low-cost controllers.
In order to obtain a more generic overview of the complexity arising when considering thousands of interconnected sensors in a network, a mathematical approach was developed by applying the JRC's expertise in the analysis of complex systems and physical networks. Topological and combinatorial analyses of network connectivity are used to understand the percolation of connectivity in large networks.