Global Standard for Unified X-Ray Imaging File Format
The value of a scanned X-ray capture data pack produced from a high-energy Non-Intrusive Inspection (NII) equipment has been the primary data artifact used for inspecting containers, vehicles and trailers, as well as other freight and parcels, for the past 23 years. Until now, this data has been second to no other data when using high energy NII equipment as part of inspection enforcement for Customs Administrations.
In 2009 the WCO took action to drive initiatives dedicated to assist its Members to enhance their awareness on the latest NII technologies, promote best practices in tender-based acquisitions, drive better maintenance practices, as well as to discuss ongoing challenges faced by Members when utilizing NII equipment within their CONOPS.
Key to this engagement between the WCO and its Members was the obvious demand for more interoperability between the many different scanning devices. This industry has been built around the value of the strengths/fidelity of each NII supplier’s proprietary X-ray capture data pack, which offers many tangible benefits, yet due to the proprietary nature, are not easily transferable, shareable or usable across the many mixed supplier devices many of the WCO Members have in their NII installed base today.
This challenge has driven the demand for industry to develop a single, unified data pack, usable across the many types of equipment in use by Customs Authorities today.
Why This Initiative is Important
The vision for this development effort comes from the underlying motivation to create a unified X-ray file format (UFF), developed to provide a universal output when generated from any mainstream high-energy NII device. This universal output can then be viewed, enhanced and used to assist an image analyzer within any Customs Organization, make an informed decision regarding the results of a NII inspection event. And do so regardless of the brand or type of the high energy system being used.
This ongoing development mission also helps to mitigate any other challenges raised from the WCO Members regarding NII best practices, while also promoting the WCO NII Guidelines and includes the forum necessary to gather additional ideas which may also find their way into future Guidelines preparation. All of these efforts are directly linked to the aims and overlying mission of the WCO Strategic Plan, including such elements as Customs-to-Business partnership, trade facilitation, security and risk management. A recap of the mission of the UFF project is:
- To address the WCO Members demands for more system interoperability capability, as this is a major demand.
- To allow for the ability to centralize the data files from all NII scanning events captured at the designated locations throughout each Customs Administration’s specific locations, which would then allow these images to be viewed at a single, centralized location within that Customs Administration’s operations.
- To allow for a seamless integration across multi-brand, multi-scan disciplines, with little to no propriety data cross-pollination.
- To reach a final, single review access point by Customs Administrations, allowing post scan event review of various metadata information, plus unified image data together on a unified viewer.
- To allow for data sharing across different authorities, countries without the need for specific tools in each location other than a unified file viewing mechanism.
How To Succeed
Workshops held with WCO Members identified several key issues which also supported the need to standardize the format of a NII image output. Members also wanted the ability to exchange images both internally and between Customs Administrations. They also had identified that a database of images could be of assistance in better understanding these analysis of images as well as the training of image analysts.
Based on these early workshops and voice of customer input, a group was formed within the WCO, tasked with formulating a plan how to organize this development effort as a collective NII industry. This early group evolved into what is now organized as the WCO Technical Experts Group on Non-intrusive Inspection or TEG-NII.
The mandate of the Technical Experts Group TEG-NII was to act under the overall direction of the Policy Commission, while reporting to the SAFE Working Group on a routine cadence, with administrative support provided by the WCO Secretariat.
Additionally, the inception of this TEG-NII has also worked quite well as a venue to launch the organized efforts around the development of the initial UFF structure. The group is currently Co-Chaired by Mr. Joris Groeneveld of Dutch Customs, along with Mr. Tim Norton of Smiths Detection, Inc. Working along with the Co-Chairs stated are representatives from a core group of NII suppliers which includes Rapiscan, Nuctech, L3, AS&E, Leidos and Smiths Detection. The WCO Secretariat representatives assisting in this initiative is Ms. Asha Menon, Senior Technical Officer and Ms. Vyara Filipova, Technical Attaché within the Compliance and Facilitation Directorate of the WCO.
Another key move was the group’s ability to get a “head start” to the process by the initial work learned working closely with the Dutch Customs. The Dutch Customs, an innovator for single window inspection, was already advancing their know-how learned from the advanced CONOPS put in place for utilizing a unified X-ray file format, as the main decision-making device for their robust container inspection operations. The TEG-NII took an early decision to leverage a partnership with the Dutch Customs in an effort to harness their expertise, which helped in solving several of the larger tasks required for the development of a global unified format. This has proven to be a great enabler to both time savings as well as proof of concept validation for the TEG-NII development work at hand.
As part of the planning process, the TEG-NII decided to break down the deliverables into (3) initial phases of work in an effort to try to gain early traction in the development process. These phases are described as follows:
Phase-1: Simple Concept Test Evaluation
Simple first phase using the current L3 unified file format being used by Dutch Customs.
Phase-2: Standardized UFF EDI Output
Generates a more standardized, evolved version of the Phase-1 format, which is to be the basis of a standard EDI output for the NII scanning industry, demonstrated via a cloud-based solution.
Phase-3: Development of a Native UFF Standard
Launch the long-term development of a true industry standard for a unified file format.
So, what is expected as an intended outcome of this effort? Certainly the headline deliverables expected begin with the following key outcomes to effectively facilitate:
- Interoperability of different NII equipment provided by different manufacturers/vendors.
- Exchange of images in a unified file format within and between Customs administrations for Customs purposes.
- Development of databases or libraries of images.
- Assist in training of image analysts.
As the TEG-NII continues to advance its efforts towards standardization of a true unified file format, there will be other NII products introduced for discussion by vendors and at the same time other NII technical issues as proposed by the WCO Members of the TEG-NII. The first 3 non-UFF topics to make the list for further group discussion were:
- A deeper discussion into the NII equipment and services tendering process. How can the industry and Customs Administrations improve the process and equally important is how can it be leveraged taking into account the many lessons learned across the WCO Member’s experiences?
- A candid look into the area of post deployment service and maintenance agreements taken with the various NII equipment suppliers and how can the voice of the WCO Member’s drive industry to improve the offerings for service and maintenance during future engagements.
In an effort to gain more insight to these topics (as well as the addition of any new topics), the TEG-NII would like to encourage all WCO Members to attend future meetings as well as to provide topics for future discussion. This represents a huge opportunity for the WCO Members to discuss openly, directly with the industry experts, minus the pressure of any commercial engagement effect. The first engagement of this nature was concluded during the 2nd TEG-NII meeting on May 4 and 5, 2017 at the WCO Headquarters in Brussels. This is for the first time vendors and the WCO Members sat together in a meeting to discuss, in an open and transparent manner, direct issues such as tenders/maintenance/training, etc. (as mentioned previously).
Upon conclusion of this successful endeavour, the plan is to organize future events as an effort to improve the overall NII experience for Customs Administrations. This recent event enjoyed a great turnout of both industry members as well as WCO Members and the plan is to make the next event’s experience even better and more engaging. And to this point, the TEG-NII appreciates the Dutch Customs for starting the pilot and at the same time greatly values the NII industry members for taking this event forward with their own resources, time and monetary investment to ensure success.
The WCO, along with the NII industry members, would like to encourage all WCO Members to participate in future meetings of the TEG-NII to provide inputs to the development of the global standard and to fully support this initiative.