Saturday, October 15, 2011

Containers: In The 'Too Hard' Basket?

One of the many concerns, surrounding the grounding of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga, is the location of the many shipping containers that have fallen from the vessel. Some have drifted to the coast, others have probably sunk, while the hunt continues for more…
I wonder how hard it would be to attach a GPS to every container? Not only would it assist Customs to locate cargo globally, but it would be a big help in a situation such as Rena.
Imagine how many hands a container passes through on its travels, the many manifests it appears on, the opportunities to change its contents for smuggling... or terrorism. Not only would a GPS locate a container, but suspicions may be raised if it indicated a container was stationery where it was not meant to be. The signals could transmit nano-second bursts via ship transponders, through satellites to a central checking system (just like my 2009 suggestions for flight recorders).
Given enough time, Customs could probably find all contraband…but time is something they don’t have in excess. This idea may help: it would certainly be valuable right now – the Port of Tauranga was closed overnight Thursday, due to the risk of containers floating free just off the coast.
Another concept for overboard containers could be some sort of saltwater-soluble plug: this could dissolve after a few hours of immersion at a specific water pressure, thus safely sinking the container. It could be located high enough up the body of the container so that if it was standing in seawater on a vessel, the plug would not be affected.
Being a layman with zero shipping knowledge, I accept that these systems may already be in place… but the current search indicates otherwise. Containers are lost overboard more often than shipping companies care to admit (up to 10,000 a year!). With over 17 million containers and nearly 5,000 container ships around the world (as at Oct.2010), these safety concepts may seem cost-prohibitive, but surely the benefits would quickly offset the expense.

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