A closer look at contraband

Software that searches for illegal goods on scanned images of cargo will further improve Customs’ inspection process.

Dutch Customs represents a substantial interest in the public-private ACXIS project. This EU initiative must generate software that looks for illegal cigarettes, weapons and drugs on scanned images of cargo. It will make the inspection process even more sophisticated. After all, screen analysts will see more, when assisted by an automated system.

The EU subsidises development projects for new technologies, in numerous countries, to improve the position of the European industry. Potential end users of such technologies are stimulated to join in on the projects, so that, in the end, truly useful products will see the light. A renowned Swiss research institute approached six parties in 2012, asking them to participate in the R&D programme ACXIS (Automated Comparison of X-Ray Images for cargo Scanning). Customs NL was one of them.

30,000 images
Since Customs invests heavily in innovation, management didn't need much convincing. It didn't take long for specialists from the Customs Laboratory and the Scan & Detection Unit to join forces with the project group – further consisting of representatives from scientific centres and leading companies. Together they ensured that the software to be developed would focus on the detection of clandestine tobacco products, weapons and drugs – since these goods in particular pose a real risk for the Dutch mainports. To perfect the software, Customs provided more than 30,000 scanned images in which such contraband was digitally hidden in different ways. This resulted in a varied overview of all types of smuggled goods and smuggling methods. The application was tested extensively by customs officers during the building phase. To learn how to work with it, roughly 55 screen analysts of the Customs department followed a training programme at the same time – provided by one of the project partners specialised in interaction between man and machine.

The analyst decides
The research findings of the ACXIS programme will be presented to the European Commission in May 2017. Dutch Customs was so pleased with the results that it already decided to integrate the new software in part of its arsenal of scanning devices. As far as we know, this makes the service the first customs department in the world to use automatic image recognition when scanning cargo. It should be stated, however, that the technology is still in its infancy, and it is still the analyst who decides whether a container should be opened to check for contraband. Nevertheless, the automated comparison of X-ray images from cargo scans will undoubtedly help Customs intercept more illegal goods. In addition, the likelihood that cargo will be needlessly selected for a physical check, will decline, further reducing unnecessary delays in the logistics process. This is a pleasant thought for trade and industry, certainly when one considers the ever-increasing trade volumes.

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