The air cargo scanner uses world-first technology to detect suspicious materials.

The air cargo scanner uses world-first technology to detect the composition, shape and density of an object, helping identify suspicious materials.

Novel scanner to improve air cargo security

The CSIRO Air Cargo Scanner provides rapid, non-intrusive and material-specific imaging for the detection of illicit and dangerous goods in consolidated air cargo.

  • 24 March 2008 | Updated 21 March 2013

The challenge

Security and border protection are key priorities for many countries throughout the world.

Most air cargo is screened using conventional x-ray scanners, which don’t predict composition, but are good at detecting objects based on their density and shape.

CSIRO’s world-first technology combines neutrons and gamma-rays to detect and predict the composition as well as the shape and density of an object.

This helps operators more readily identify suspicious materials, such as explosives, drugs and other contraband.

Meeting the need

CSIRO has an international reputation for developing novel, on-line analysis instrumentation for the minerals and energy industries.

The Australian Customs Service approached CSIRO to discuss the potential of applying this expertise to further improving air cargo screening security.

Following initial feasibility studies and demonstration of a prototype scanner, the Australian Government allocated A$8.4 million in 2004 to Customs to construct a commercial-scale facility at Brisbane International Airport to trial the first commercial prototype CSIRO Air Cargo Scanner.

The Brisbane Mark 1 trial commenced in June 2006 and ended in March 2007.

It demonstrated good detection rates for a wide range of threat items, with the prototype performing as well as the leading technology on the market.

CSIRO is working in partnership with Nuctech Limited to develop a next-generation Air Cargo Scanner that combines the best of each organisation’s technologies.

The technology

CSIRO’s technology works by building a material-specific image of the contents of an air cargo container, helping the operator detect any anomalies that should be inspected more closely.

Unlike conventional x-ray scanning systems, the CSIRO scanner is designed to simultaneously detect both metallic and organic objects in a cargo container by collecting two images using both gamma ray and neutron beams.

The instrument combines the two beams to form a composite image that allows detection of both high- and low-density objects in a container, giving excellent differentiation between inorganic and organic objects and enabling identification of different types of organic compounds.

The gamma-ray beam is most sensitive to dense objects, such as metallic weapons, while the neutron beam is most sensitive to lower-density organic items containing lighter elements, particularly hydrogen.

Key advantages of the combined neutron and gamma-ray scanning method include:

  • sharp, high-resolution images and a sophisticated software interface help operators rapidly and accurately analyse scanned cargos by composition, shape and density
  • ability to discriminate between a wide range of organic and inorganic material
  • radiation exposure for cargo during scanning is less than that received during a two-hour plane flight.

The technology is easily integrated with existing airport systems and is non-intrusive to minimise the impact of security measures on rapid freight movement.

Pallets and unit load devices (ULDs) can be scanned without being unpacked, allowing high volumes of cargo to be rapidly screened.


CSIRO is working in partnership with Nuctech Limited to develop a next-generation Air Cargo Scanner that combines the best of each organisation’s technologies.

This new venture aims to develop a product with:

  • sharper images for improved object identification
  • quasi three-dimensional multi-image viewing to assist operators in resolving cluttered cargos
  • faster and more flexible scanning and handling of cargo suited to 100 per cent screening requirements
  • small ‘footprint’ for easy integration with airport systems.

Further applications

CSIRO is adapting the air cargo scanning technology for use in a luggage scanner.

It will use different radiation sources and detector systems and will concentrate on detecting explosives.

The luggage system will be automated, so operators don’t need to make judgement calls.

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