Sniffing out contraband

Sniffing out contraband

June 30, 2021 Off By Roberta Johnston

New research will allow detection without opening containers for inspection

Written by Kay Ledbetter, 806-547-0002[email protected]

Shipping containers crisscrossing the world and stopping at ports and borders to enter the U.S. for transport across the nation may soon have to pass the “sniff” test.


Specially trained dogs are at the center of a new project by the Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense, CBTS, Center of Excellence, working in conjunction with the Center for Conservation Biology and their Conservation Canines program at the University of Washington.

Greg Pompelli, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M AgriLife-led CBTS, Bryan-College Station, said the problem today is that transnational criminal organizations are capitalizing on the difficulty and expense of detecting containerized contraband once in transit, due to huge increases in the volume of containers shipped worldwide and pressure to keep commerce moving.

This past year, Pompelli said CBTS funded a range of projects, including a two-year project designed by Sam Wasser, Ph.D., director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, to develop a low-cost method using dogs to detect contraband in shipping containers, without breaking customs seals. The dogs are trained to detect the contraband scent in air samples vacuumed from shipping containers.

If successful, this method will allow agents to search containers for contraband ranging from ivory to drugs to timber with minimal disruption to port operations and provide criminal investigators with another tool to fight illegal imports, Pompelli said.

Detection without breaking the customs seals

“Right now, detection programs require the containers to be open to determine if they include contraband,” Pompelli said. “But this project allows an operator to draw an air sample from a container and bring it back to the dog to determine if there is something of concern.”

Heather Manley Lillibridge, Ph.D., CBTS executive director, Bryan-College Station, said the project will soon be entering its second year. Researchers are in the process of testing the accuracy and sensitivity of the dogs in detection rates on various types of contraband. They started with smaller containers and are working to scale up to samples from shipping containers.

“We have to determine not only if the dogs are effective, but how can they be generally used or specifically used and what can be accomplished,” Pompelli said. “We know there are a lot of canine units out there already. We know the process has to be credible – if you open the container and there is illegal contraband, that there was probable cause for a legal case that will be built.”

The science behind the sniff test

Pompelli said a key part of the research project is developing an apparatus that draws air from the outside vents at the top of each shipping container, through a canister containing an inexpensive odor-collection material that captures the contraband scent.

Manley Lillibridge said in an effort to increase the efficiency of their sampling devise, Wasser’s team began collaborating with Igor Novosselov, Ph.D., a University of Washington aerosol scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering who is being funded by another DHS Center of Excellence – Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats, ALERT.

The new device mimics how a dog smells by stirring the air and uses a vacuum strong enough to survey a larger cargo container. They are using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to determine how long to draw air from the container based on the signal strength captured by the apparatus over time. A pilot demonstration will be conducted in the Port of Seattle towards the end of the second year.

Training the dogs

The dogs at the Center for Conservation Biology’s Conservation Canine Program are uniquely trained and can even detect whale scat in the middle of the ocean.

Remarkably, all of the center’s dogs are rescued from animal shelters, Wasser said. The Conservation Canine Program looks for dogs that have a strong drive to play with a ball, which is used to incentivize and reward detecting targets and reinforce training. Dogs learn to associate detection of target odor with receipt of a ball. They then transfer that skill to detect the target odor vacuumed onto the odor capture material.

The dogs for this project were initially trained on sea cucumber and African elephant ivory as the two ends of the spectrum to determine the dogs’ limits of detection using this method. The dogs will move in year two to the detection of high-value and more rare timber species.

Manley Lillibridge said the project will ultimately focus on illegal timber species but is using legal high-value timber species as the proof of concept to maximize opportunities to fully test the method.

“We chose multiple high-value timber species that are readily available but too expensive to be used to make pallets or other packing materials,” Wasser said. “We also wanted species that come through the port frequently enough to allow our teams to establish reliable true- and false-positive detection rates.”

The idea, Manley Lillibridge said, is not to try to look at every single container in the port. Ultimately, the vision is to have the targeted knowledge of when contraband may be coming through the port and then without breaking the seal, be able to sample the containers as they are stacked. After samples are captured, the sealed canisters containing the scent-containing pads will be taken to a nearby site and presented in sequence to detection dogs trained to alert to specific contraband scents.

The research will test the accuracy and sensitivity of the methods, including true-positive and false-positive detections rates, how the threshold of detection varies with draw time, type and strength of the contraband odor, and in the presence of various nontarget odors likely to be comingled with the contraband in the same container.

Disrupting the trafficking of contraband

Manley Lillibridge said the ultimate goal is not to create a new set of border teams utilizing dogs, but to transfer this technology to existing canine programs worldwide, allowing for searching containers for contraband with minimal disruption to port operations.

“Because this is research and a proof of concept, what would transition to Homeland Security and other parties are the training techniques and method,” she said. “Our project is funding three canine handler teams.”

The technology demonstration will be done with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, HSI, who are responsible for investigating contraband-related crimes. Specifically, the team is working with HSI’s Environmental Crimes program, which investigates everything from smuggled ivory to endangered species to narcotics and money laundering items.  

“The project is aimed at being another tool to disrupt the network of trans-criminal organizations that are making a profit on a wide variety of trafficking contraband,” Manley Lillibridge said. “Most important is being able to preserve the chain of custody and follow the container to make the legal case further down the road.”

Additionally, she said, part of the vision is to extend the program across the world to prevent contraband from ever reaching the U.S.