INSIGHT: Congress eyes real-time cargo tracking

11 October 2007 17:08  [Source: ICIS news]

Ultra-small RFID chips next to human hairBy Joe Kamalick

 

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US Congress may soon expand its mandate for antiterrorism provisions at chemical facilities to include high-tech, real-time tracking requirements for hazardous materials shipments nationwide.

 

The expansion of federal authority over security measures for hazmat cargoes in transit may come as early as next year or by 2009 at the latest, and it could require manufacturers and shippers of toxic substances to install expensive real-time monitoring technology on railroad tank cars and even tanker trucks.

 

That broadening of the congressional mandate for antiterrorism security standards for the production and movement of high-risk chemical substances is likely in part because Congress is obliged to rewrite its year-old chemical site security law before the end of 2009 anyway. 

 

The expanded oversight authority also is likely because the high-tech transit security technology is increasingly available and already is being implemented by major producers.

 

At a supply chain security conference here in Washington earlier this week, business, industry and technology leaders were hailing advances in radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning systems (GPS) as invaluable aids to logistics in general and tracking risky cargoes in particular.

 

Two members of Congress participating in the conference also had high praise for RFID and GPS - and suggested that perhaps Congress should step in to help spread that technology.

 

Representative Loretta Sanchez (Democrat-California) said that she and others in Congress “are trying to figure out how to set policy for RFID applications and yet let the private sector do what it does best, develop this technology”.

 

“Our job in Congress is to look for gaps in RFID and to look for ways to broaden this technology,” she said.

 

Radio frequency identification tags are postage stamp-size labels that contain a tiny antenna and integrated circuit. The tags can be programmed and reprogrammed with a variety of information, including a unique unit identification number. 

 

The tags can be read by proximity scanners along the entire route of distribution from manufacturer to end-user, offering unprecedented inventory knowledge and control and greater security. More advanced tags can monitor environmental conditions such as humidity and temperature in tank car or truck cargoes. 

 

A GPS system uses satellite tracking to locate a specific truck, rail car or ocean vessel to within a few yards.

 

In combination with GPS gear mounted on rail cars or trucks, high-end RFID tags can actively and immediately notify operators if someone has tried to open the tank car or if it has derailed or been subjected to unusual shock.

 

Some US chemicals manufacturers, most notably Dow Chemical, already are using RFID technology to track and secure hazardous rail cargoes.

 

Sanchez, who chairs a key House panel on border security and counterterrorism, said that “those of us in government seek to streamline this process,” referring to the roll-out of RFID technology in security and business sectors. 

 

Representative Bob Goodlatte (Republican-Virginia) also told the conference of his enthusiasm for RFID technology, saying: “The potential applications of RFID for business are virtually limitless.”

 

However, Goodlatte too indicated that Congress should have a role in both advancing RFID technology to protect the citizenry.

 

“The best way to encourage the continued growth of new technologies is for government to ensure that it plays an enabling and not an inhibiting role,” he said.

 

Goodlatte, who is co-chairman of the congressional Internet caucus, noted that RFID devices “can be used to monitor inventories [and] track the flow of goods among transportation nodes to their final destinations”. RFID has particular value, he said, because “the safety of our nation’s citizens is at stake”.

 

Some in industry suspect that what Sanchez, Goodlatte and others in Congress mean when they say “we can help” is really “we can mandate”.

 

Indeed, Henry Ward, Dow’s director of transportation safety and security, said that federal legislation and regulations mandating the use of RFID and GPS to ensure the safe transit of toxic chemicals and other hazardous substances will be enacted in the not too distant future.

 

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Ward said that while Dow and most other major US chemicals manufacturers already are implementing those two and other advanced security technologies, the federal government ultimately will step in to require such precautions across the chemicals sector.

 

Dow has installed both RFID and GPS systems on most of its 1,600 rail cars carrying toxic inhalant hazardous (TIH) materials in North America.

 

“We feel that we have a responsibility to be a leader in terms of moving forward in addressing safety and security issues,” Ward said.  “And we believe that industry momentum toward this technology is building as we continue to move forward and as other leaders in industry join us in this effort.”

 

Still, Ward agrees that not all chemical companies and distributors will be quick to adopt RFID and GPS technology and that congressional action may be inevitable.

 

“Is there a need for regulation or legislation at some point in the future that builds upon industry best practices in this area?” he asked.  “That may be the case, but we’re probably some distance from that today.”

 

He noted that Congress ultimately took steps to impose antiterrorism security standards for high-risk US chemical production facilities, saying that Congress inevitably will take a similar approach to mandate real-time security technology for hazardous cargoes in transit.


By: Joe Kamalick
+1 713 525 2653



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