Safe Harbor

— September 10, 2007

By Tim Scannell

The early morning darkness is still wrapped around San Francisco Bay as a large truck approaches a security checkpoint at the Port of Oakland, Calif., one of the busiest container ports in the United States.


In the dim light, and from a distance, it is difficult to see the truck's markings or its license plate. The truck shows no signs of stopping as it lines up with the gate and prepares to enter the approximately 300-acre transportation facility, which is a part of the larger marine terminal and sprawling 19-mile Port of Oakland complex that stretches across the eastern shore of the bay.

Security personnel watch the truck as it emerges from the nighttime shadows and takes on a more distinct form in the unforgiving glare of high-intensity lamps. It continues through the gate without stopping, as the driver makes his way toward the Oakland International Container Terminal (OICT) and seaport area.

A year or so ago, this action could have triggered all sorts of security alarms and forced guards to take measures to stop the truck and the driver--especially as ports worldwide take a more cautious look at container trucks and their cargo and try to keep pace with an increasing flow of shipping traffic. In this case, however, the truck was identified and tracked long before it entered the terminal area, thanks to an active radio frequency ID (RFID) transmitter installed in the truck and a real-time locating system (RTLS) infrastructure in place at the Port of Oakland that is tied into a cross-referencing transportation database.

Previously, "we had no idea what trucks were in the port and whether or not they even belonged there," says Mike O'Brien, a 25-year Coast Guard veteran and commander who was hired in January 2006 as the Port of Oakland's chief security officer. With more than 80 percent of the sea and air transportation going through these westbound ports, and thousands of short- and long-haul trucks entering each day, this security expert described early port activities as a "wide open Wild West."

"We wanted a system that would register truckers and tell us who was in the port at any given time," adds O'Brien. The goal was to "set up a system with better land-side awareness, especially from a security standpoint."

Security a Top Concern
Security is one of the top reasons why most companies adopt RFID tracking systems, according to ABI Research. A recent survey of more than 175 organizations worldwide reveals that RFID solutions are rapidly moving beyond traditional supply chain applications--where the technology got its first real and public boost through adoption by mega-companies such as Wal-Mart--into others such as asset management, security access control and other closed-loop environments. "The business case and value proposition for RFID is being realized across many types of organizations," notes Michael Laird, director of ABI Research.

Many of the security applications are being driven by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and government mandates that focus specifically on transportation and tracking issues.

The asset management and control capabilities of both active and passive RFID are also churning new business opportunities for makers of RFID middleware, as they develop RFID-aware applications that increase the efficiency of current asset tracking and inventory management software, says market research firm Frost & Sullivan. The return on investment (ROI) benefits of RFID are more easily measured when the technology is applied to existing closed-loop information systems, says the research in a June 2007 report.

Santa Clara-based WhereNet, a pioneer in RFID technology and wireless tracking solutions, developed the RFID Truck Tracking and Identification system in use at the Port of Oakland. The system is presently in use at only one of eight terminal areas, although roughly 1,700 WhereNet transmitters have been installed in about 50 to 60 percent of the short-haul, or drayage, trucks that routinely enter and leave the facility. The goal is to eventually have up to 95 percent of all trucks equipped with the active tags, according to John Rosen, director of the company's marine division.

"A security guard can only do so good a job checking a driver's license and noting the faces coming in and out of a facility," Rosen points out.

Increased security was, of course, one of the primary reasons why the Port of Oakland decided on active RFID as a solution--especially since the bulk of funding for the system was provided by a DHS grant. But the system's ability to tap into sources such as eModal's Port System and Trucker Check database software, and eventually the Port of Oakland's own information resources, has also positioned it as a capable logistics tool in managing the business aspects of this busy port.

For example, the system can not only be used to identify a truck and driver within 30 seconds or so, but it can be matched with appointment schedules to coordinate the flow of traffic and deliveries throughout the port area, explains O'Brien.

Truckers like the RFID tracing system since it speeds them through checkpoints and security stations, making better use of their time and tight schedules. "It provides a fast-track lane, if you will, for trucks to quickly get in and out by using auto associations and clearances," says O'Brien.

Painting a Clearer Picture
The WhereNet system basically helps keep tabs on such information as the driver's name, the truck size and other pertinent data. The information contained on each truck's RFID transmitter is presently limited to the tag ID, which is unique to each truck and driver. When the tag comes within range of an active terminal at the Port of Oakland, however, it transfers this ID to the eModal database, which contains detailed information on the driver, the truck's cargo and transportation schedules.

"The true benefit of the system is realized when it is integrated with other management systems," says O'Brien. The aggregated information can even be combined with GPS tracking data to pinpoint the progress of dangerous cargo within the port area. "This paints a complete picture of where someone is and where they are not supposed to be at any particular time," he added.

WhereNet's RFID transmitter is a little smaller than a pack of playing cards and attaches to the driver's side rearview mirror with a custom mount, where it can easily be seen by a security guard as a truck rolls through the gate. When affixed to the driver's side mirror, the RFID device is also close to the pedestal and microphone where the driver communicates with the terminal--much like someone uses a drive-through kiosk to place an order for fast food, says WhereNet's Rosen.

Rather than be placed somewhere within the truck cab or body, the RFID tag is deliberately installed in plain sight. "It provides visibility to the locate infrastructure that we have in many of these ports while the truck is in the facility," Rosen explains. "There is a benefit to knowing where these trucks are by seeing them within the terminal."

WhereNet has quite a bit of experience in transportation tracking applications, having planned and executed a number of RFID deployments worldwide. In 2005, for example, the company worked with the Broekman Group's automotive division in The Netherlands to install one of the world's largest RFID tracking and logistics systems in the Port of Rotterdam. The wireless system can be used to locate any one of 40,000 vehicles that are in the 750,000-plus square-foot facility at any one time.

RFID in the Crosshairs
RFID and GPS tracking have come under fire from privacy advocates who maintain that constant electronic surveillance can be abused and may inadvertently or purposely violate personal privacy laws.

Most recently, the 8,400-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance threatened to strike if the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission continued with plans to require GPS tracking systems in New York's 13,000 taxis starting Oct. 1. The Commission maintains that GPS technology and on-board touch-screen computers would allow patrons to pay by credit card and find useful information about their destinations. Critics say that GPS devices invade a driver's privacy since they can automatically track movements and activities.

Years earlier, snow plow drivers in Massachusetts balked at using GPS-enabled cell phones in their trucks and the state's decision to provide seasonal contracts only to those drivers who agreed to use the satellite-linked phones.

Increasing security concerns since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as well as mandates coming from the DHS and other government agencies, have silenced many critics of wireless tracking technology. The growing availability of state and federal grants to fund RFID and other electronic tracking initiatives has made the decision process a lot easier for many companies and agencies, especially as they look beyond the security aspects of these systems to further explore the benefits of logistics and asset management.

"The true benefit of this system will be realized when it is integrated with other management systems that are coming or are already out there," says O'Brien. Systems on the horizon include the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) network, which when used with the current RFID system can be used not only to verify a trucker's identity but also to cross-match that against a scheduling database to reveal if he or she has a business reason to be at the Port of Oakland's marine terminal. This information can also be linked to databases maintained by container and shipping corporations to provide a more complete profile of a trucker and his cargo, notes O'Brien.


"When all of these things are integrated and put together in a smart fashion, it's really going to improve the flow and improve security at the same time." //

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