Center for Environmental Forensic Science

Combining Remote Air Sensing and Detection Dogs

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Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are hiding contraband amongst a legal trade, capitalizing on the large volume of containerized goods shipped worldwide and international pressure to keep commerce moving through the ports. To address this challenge, we developed a low cost, high throughput method for detection dogs to identify shipping containers harboring contraband. Our system does not require breaking security seals and could significantly increase interdictions at Ports of Entry (POE). Multiple containers can be rapidly searched using this method with minimal disruption to port operations.

This project is part of a large-scale Research Partnership between the University of Washington and the Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence in Cross Border Threat Screening and Security, managed by Texas A&M.

This canine screening method follows two basic stages:

1. COLLECT – An air sampling device draws air through the external vent of the shipping container. The air is passed through a removable canister that contains a scent-capture filter. The canister is sealed, labelled, and sent to a nearby location for canine detection.

2. DETECT – The sealed sample canisters are presented in sequence to one or more detection dogs, outside public view, trained to alert to specific contraband scent.

The remote air sampling (RAS) device was developed in collaboration with Igor Novosselov, an aerosol science expert in the UW Department of Mechanical Engineering. Roughly the size of a handheld drill, this battery powered RAS device maximizes surface area exposure of the odor capture material during air withdrawal.

While this screening method will eventually be used to detect illegal timber and wildlife contraband, we are pilot testing the method on a select number of high-value timber species that are legal, and frequently imported into the Port of Seattle. This provides access to large numbers of containers housing the target material, more RAS sampling opportunities, and the ability to validate true and false positive canine detection rates. We are currently testing the RAS system at local timber shipping companies that export containerized timber and lumber. The final stage of pilot testing will be conducted at the Port of Seattle. Collaborators include the Port of Seattle, HSI, CBP, and SSA Marine, Inc.

The ability to rapidly screen containers for contraband, without having to move the container offline or break security seals, could provide a breakthrough in efforts to combat this illegal trade, with minimal disruption to the flow of commerce. The method is designed with low-cost, transferable technology that can be employed by canine detection units in strategic ports worldwide.