Summer  >>  2004  

Improving Transportation Security: A Geospatial Approach

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, geospatial experts went to work assisting in the response and recovery efforts. Their experiences demonstrated the utility of remote sensing and other geospatial technologies in the battle against terrorism. These technologies, while certainly not a panacea, often provide the critical edge for security planning and rapid response to emergencies. Unfortunately, too few state and local communities yet have the capacity to put these useful tools to work, in large part because too little focused attention has been directed at research, development, and implementation of user-friendly geospatial tools to support security efforts.

Surface transportation security is of highest concern because vulnerabilities throughout elements of the transportation infrastructure render them potential targets of terrorist activity. Intermodal freight transport and the transport of hazardous materials make particularly tempting terrorist targets. Further, the several modes of intermodal transport could be used clandestinely to convey weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Hazardous materials such as nuclear cargo and waste can be diverted in transit by terrorists and used destructively. Common and widely-transported materials such as gasoline or chlorine can even serve as frightening instruments of destruction. The security of both intermodal and hazardous materials transport is a matter of overwhelming importance for state and local authorities, who bear the responsibility of first response in any emergency.

Remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), and position, navigation, and timing (PNT) technologies provide powerful tools for states and local communities to use in dealing with these important security concerns. The National Consortium on Security, Safety, Hazards, and Disaster Assessment (NCRST-H) has recently issued a report ( or devoted specifically to issues of intermodal freight transport and surface transport of hazardous materials. As the report explains, many transportation security applications require new geospatial tools, which necessitate continued R&D, testing and implementation.

America’s transportation system, vibrant and complex, yet open and accessible, exhibits numerous vulnerabilities. Further, the interconnectedness of the system increases the potential that an attack on key elements of the system could cascade throughout, causing serious supply disruptions. Some of the most vulnerable modes include the many surface transportation vehicles, including cars, buses, subways, and trains, that ply the nation’s streets and rails. Improved protection will require geospatial inventory of the myriad, diverse transportation components, and continual updating of their condition and security status.

Intermodal freight transport poses a significant challenge to transportation security because freight containers may change transportation mode several times during their long trek from supplier to customer. Some five million containerized freight shipments move through America’s ports each year, shifting from ship to truck or rail transport or both to reach their final destination.

The logistical complexities of intermodal transport make this sprawling component of the transportation industry extremely difficult to secure. Remote sensing and other geospatial information holds the potential for end-to-end tracking and monitoring, which are critical to improving intermodal transportation security and to supporting the U.S. economy.

Moreover, improved information management tools such as databases and statistical analyses, when merged with geospatial technologies, will increase the effectiveness of both tool sets. A suite of tools that includes advanced cargo shipping information, automated manifest interface, advanced profiling, and vulnerability and risk assessment tools is clearly needed. Systems for automated identification of high-risk cargo and automated identification and communication systems are also of deep interest.

Transporting hazardous materials, such as toxic chemicals and nuclear waste and fuel, relates to many of the issues and solutions dealt with in intermodal transport. Nevertheless, because the materials themselves pose particular health and safety hazards, regardless of terrorist concerns, and because they can be used as weapons of terrorism, the transport of hazardous materials also requires detailed attention. The sheer volume of hazardous materials such as gasoline, chlorine, and other chemicals transported every day through towns and cities makes the task of tracking them particularly difficult. Geospatial tools, combined with advanced communications technologies, can ease this burden and provide security officials with better quality information.

Current methods of planning and tracking hazardous materials transport, which often depend on relatively crude, expensive methods, could be significantly improved with the more precise position information and routing details that geospatial technologies can provide. For example, if a shipment is attacked or communication is lost, highly detailed, image-based maps of the route can help authorities answer such questions as: What is the physical environment in the area of last communication? What is the quickest route to reach the area? These and other important questions can be answered quickly and cost-effectively by employing new, sophisticated geospatial tools, such as mobile mapping, which combines the use of GPS, real-time video, and digital photography.

Nevertheless, despite the utility of geospatial technologies to assist the antiterrorist effort, the Department of Homeland Security has been slow to embrace these powerful technologies in its daily operations. Such technologies have also generally not sufficiently penetrated to the state and local authorities that would have to respond in the event of a future terrorist attack.

We can and must make our transportation system less vulnerable. Fortunately, satellite imagery and other geospatial tools make that goal much easier to attain than ever before. And there is a side benefit to putting these tools to work in a serious way. Transportation improvements that reduce vulnerability to attack can also improve transportation safety, and reduce environmental impacts. Despite the progress that the National Consortia on Remote Sensing in Transportation was able to make in the three years it was funded by the Department of Transportation, funding was cut just as some of the geospatial tools under development were nearing the implementation stage.

Nevertheless, improving the nation’s transportation security will take more than funding. Needed are supportive policies at federal, state and local levels, and extensive education of the potential user community to the promise and utility of remote sensing and other geospatial technologies.

Ray A. Williamson is a Research Professor in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University. He is co-author of the report described in this column.

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