A UNIVERSAL software standard for cargo screening, which promises to significantly improve Customs efficiency and reduce costs and dwell times around the world, is edging closer, reveals the World Customs Organisation (WCO).

A technological platform – known as Unified File Format (UFF) and which is being developed co-operatively by a group of Customs and equipment suppliers’ representatives – is expected to become the global electronic data interchange (EDI) language for all cargo screening devices, writes Thelma Etim.

Freight scanning systems allow the examination of a wide variety of goods ranging from cars, trucks, railway wagons, sea and air cargo containers to packages, parcels and mail etc, through either X-ray or gamma-ray imaging equipment.

Currently, there is a wide variety of technologies with different capabilities that increase the efficiency of Customs inspection procedures and accelerate the clearance process but, in a competitive market, has resulted in a panoply of technology providers producing data for specific workstations – compatible with only specified scanning machines – as well as requiring individual training courses, explains a WCO report.

“As a consequence, Customs administrations usually have a fleet of scanners, each producing data which is not easily shareable,” the body notes.

Dutch Customs has already begun work on developing its own unified image format

Customs administrations have long been demanding that technology suppliers use one specific format for the images and data produced by their equipment.

The lack of standardisation prompted the WCO, along with some leading scanner companies, including AS&E, L3, Leidos, Nuctech, Rapiscan and Smiths Detection, to form a technical-experts working group whose sole focus was to create a single international standard for scanned images and associated metadata.

The beauty of a common system lies in the ability to exchange images between border posts and between countries, notes the WCO. It also raises the prospect of nations pre-inspecting another country’s exported goods.

Work on UFF began in September last year, when the WCO Technical Experts Group on Non-Intrusive Inspection (TEG-NII) had its first meeting.

Joris Groeneveld, the group’s co-chair, has been instrumental in the initiative’s progress. He is a pioneer in scanning operations at Dutch Customs, which had already begun work on developing its own unified image format.

The UFF project is currently in the second of three phases – the first involved manufacturers testing the compatibility of the Dutch system.

Once scanning system suppliers have designed an infrastructure for the new format, along with a testing platform, phase three will see the creation of an upgraded version, which can then be utilised by all technology providers – even from remote locations.

“Standardising the format of a NII image output would enable a huge database of scanned images to be created, not only collected from national Customs offices, but also from other Customs administrations, which could be used by all to train officers or programme machines to recognise [specific] objects,” says a joint statement.

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