Panorama

KCS takes its first steps into R&D

By Heon Park, Director General of the ICT and Data Policy Bureau, Korea Customs Service

Having digitized the entire Customs clearance process by 1998, the Korea Customs Service (KCS) has been a pioneer in the adoption of emerging technologies. Moving forward with these efforts, it now aspires to develop innovative technological equipment. This article explains how it became a government agency active in the field of research and development (R&D) and takes a look at the projects it is currently working on.

Paving the way

In 2020, the combined value of Korean exports and imports reached USD 980 billion. This is a 350-fold increase on the USD 2.82 billion reported for 1970, the year in which the Korea Customs Service (KCS) first set out as an independent agency. The total revenue collected following investigation by Customs in Korea over the same time period saw an 874-fold increase of USD 2,700 billion from a mere USD 3 billion. Moreover, as the number of cross-border movements grew, there was an even greater increase in threats to border security, a trend that is expected to continue.

KCS staffing levels did not keep pace with this rapid growth. The Service has seen only a modest – barely a threefold – increase in staff numbers from 1,800 to 5,300 personnel, such that, in 2021, the total value of imports divided by the total number of Customs officers, which may provide a rough indicator of the Customs workload, amounted to 110 million US dollar. In a bid to ease chronic staff shortages, KCS began deploying information and communication technologies, introducing various types of innovative equipment into the workplace at an early stage.

The downside of this approach was that, in many cases, the equipment used was originally developed for aviation security, limiting its use for Customs purposes. Over time, KCS officers, struggling with inadequate tools, came to recognize the need for technologies and equipment designed specifically to meet their needs: KCS needed to launch R&D projects of its own. There was a long, hard road ahead.

Government budget planning in Korea is essentially undertaken on an annual basis. However, R&D projects take several years, at the very least, to complete. The standard procedure would require KCS to re-submit budget requests every year without any guarantee of approval, critically compromising the continuity of R&D projects. Fortunately, the Government allows for the creation of a multi-annual R&D account, but a government body must meet strict eligibility criteria to be able to apply for such an account, including having the legal bases for R&D, a dedicated R&D unit and a research plan.

KCS immediately set out to meet these demands. In 2020, it formed an R&D matrix task force, consisting of a cross-functional group of members from the planning and ICT divisions. The work of this task force involved the planning of the budget, amendment of the Customs Act, establishment of an R&D and Equipment Team and, most importantly, by thoroughly analysing KCS missions, tasks and work processes, development of a long-term R&D roadmap for KCS. Preparing KCS to conduct its own R&D was a long and arduous journey.

All these efforts gradually came to fruition. The amendment of the Customs Act was passed by the National Assembly in December 2020, adding to the Act a clause naming KCS as an authorized R&D agency. KCS held lengthy talks with the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, responsible for regulating the organizational structure of KCS, concerning the establishment of the KCS R&D and Equipment Division in March 2021. Now that everything was in place, KCS was able to submit a request for the R&D budget, successfully securing USD 30 million for R&D over the next four years.

KCS was fortunate in having a precedent to follow: the Korean National Police Agency has previously undertaken similar efforts with a view to conducting its own R&D. Always eager to gain expertise and experience, KCS has consistently sought advice from the Ministry of Science and ICT. This is how KCS came to embark on its very first R&D programme, which it named CustomsLab.

CustomsLab explained

The first R&D programme conducted by KCS in its 50-year history, CustomsLab is a four-year programme scheduled to run from 2021 to 2024. It comprises a total of seven research projects, five of which were launched in June 2021, with two more set to begin by June 2022. A group of senior scientists was established for the overall management of CustomsLab projects. Individual projects are to be carried out by representatives of academia, industry and research bodies. At the moment, there are 22 such bodies taking part in CustomsLab, a number expected to increase with the launch of the final two projects.

CustomsLab is a strictly workplace-oriented programme, focusing precisely on the needs of Customs officers. Each project is designed to address the difficulties faced by KCS officers who ensure a permanent presence at the ports of entry 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, no matter the weather or the season. A specific Customs site was assigned to each project for the researchers to refer to and communicate with. As part of the final stage of all projects, an in-field demonstration is scheduled for 2024, further ensuring that the resulting technologies and equipment will meet Customs’ needs precisely.

CustomsLab projects in focus

Each CustomsLab project paid special attention to end users’ needs during the planning process and the work involved in deciding on a research topic. To that end, KCS held an R&D idea contest open to participation by its staff and the general public. Each proposal was thoroughly scrutinized by a team of scientists, engineers and Customs officers who honed in on its technological feasibility and usefulness. The five ideas ultimately selected to be the focus of the R&D projects are described below.

  1. Improving X-ray scanners used for small-sized cargo

Both passenger baggage and small cargo such as parcels and other mail go through the same type of X-ray scanners built for small-sized cargo, despite both having their own very distinctive features. The project on “X-ray scanners for small-sized cargo” aims at identifying ways to improve non-intrusive inspection for these types of small cargo. For baggage scanners, the objective is to improve the image quality, since baggage tends to contain a wide variety of tightly packed items. For parcel and mail scanners, the objective is to speed up the scanning process given the volume of items received on a daily basis that all have to be X-ray inspected.

As part of this project, KCS is also developing an adjustable X-ray beam intensity. Most X-ray scanners currently use a fixed energy beam that does not produce high-quality images of low-density objects because the X-rays pass straight through them. This project aims to develop an X-ray scanner whose X-ray beam intensity could be adjusted according to the size and weight of the cargo so that it can produce interpretable images of items for which the use of standard X-ray intensity does not work.

Finally, the new scanner is to be equipped with an automatic threat recognition tool. Many countries have started developing and using algorithms to detect specific patterns in different types of X-ray scans. Such tools can be constantly improved by feeding the algorithm with new data.

  1. A computer-based training (CBT) programme for X-ray image interpreters

Interpreting X-ray images is an extremely challenging task that must be left to the professionals.[1] It is essential to ensure that all human operators are highly skilled. To train their staff, many organizations use computer-based training (CBT), a method in which the computer presents a problem, records the answers and provides feedback. However, many training programmes offered by private firms are not the best solution, as the learning materials and difficulty levels are predetermined. Such programmes often cannot be updated with new images based on real-life cases, which may render them less useful over time.

As part of the project on “computer-based training programme for X-ray image interpreters”, KCS is developing a CBT programme that will provide personalized training courses for X-ray screeners. The objective is to create a pool of X-ray images of various illegal goods found in cargo to be used as training material. This pool of images would be regularly updated with new cases, so that screeners can benefit from continuous training.

  1. A radiation detector for cargo under the Customs clearance process

In Korea, container imports selected for radiation inspection initially pass through a large-scale, fixed-position radiation detector. If the alarm sounds, a Customs officer inspects the container with a radiometer or, where possible, samples a small portion of the item to be sent to the lab. This process involves the officer being in close proximity to radioactive contaminants. It not only causes delays in the clearance process but, most importantly, puts the health of the Customs officers at risk.

The project on “a radiation detector for cargo” aims at developing a piece of equipment that would do more than simply detect the existence of radioactive contaminants in a container, but would also identify the nuclide, locate the radiation source three-dimensionally and measure the radiation dose to which an inspector would be exposed so that appropriate measures can be taken for his or her protection.

  1. A system to identify and track high-risk passengers using multi-CCTV analysis

It is easy to lose track of a passenger in the crowded arrival hall of an airport. In order to assist officers in monitoring and tracking high-risk passengers, KCS is developing a system that automatically tracks high-risk passengers using CCTV. Multiple cameras are to be integrated into a single system whereby any passenger who is lost on one camera is subsequently picked up by another, enabling the system to keep tracking the person.

As part of this project, KCS is also researching ways of tracking baggage. Indeed, smugglers sometimes exploit security camera blind spots to hand over baggage to accomplices or do so in places where there are no cameras, for example the toilets.

  1. A THz body scanner for detecting hidden objects

A full-body scanner is a device that detects objects on or inside a person’s body. KCS is working on the design of a high-speed imaging system using terahertz waves. These waves make it possible to see through objects that light cannot pass through, such as clothes, while avoiding potentially harmful ionizing radiation such as X-rays. As their frequency and, therefore, their energy are much lower than those of X-ray beams that penetrate the human body, THz waves can also be used to create an image of an item, making it an ideal choice for detecting goods concealed under clothing. Once a library of images has been compiled, KCS plans to carry out further research to equip the THz body scanner with an automatic threat recognition tool.

Future projects

The creation of an R&D and Equipment Team, along with the launch of its first R&D projects, marks a new beginning for the KCS. The term R&D covers three types of activities: basic research, applied research and experimental development.[2] To date, KCS has focused on the latter two activities, but it plans to widen its scope into the area of basic research by engaging in the development of fundamental technologies. To ensure the stability of R&D projects over the coming years, KCS plans to establish a Korea Customs Research Centre. The CustomsLab projects have all been conducted by KCS in collaboration with a number of external research institutes. The establishment of such a centre will enable KCS to carry out its own R&D in-house.

A Customs authority enjoys many advantages when it comes to research and development. It has access to vast amounts of data and information on logistics, trade, Customs clearance, international e-commerce transactions, cross-border movements and so on. It controls Customs facilities across the whole country, ranging from airport and seaport arrival halls to warehouses and Customs clearance sites, providing researchers with suitable locations for in-field demonstrations. There is no shortage of room for improvement in the various processes and tasks involved, from cargo inspection to surveillance, investigation and auditing. Each area of work calls for different types of technologies, providing the Customs authority with opportunities for R&D on a wide variety of topics.

The annual R&D idea contest enabled KCS to gather a number of interesting ideas, some quite feasible, others rather ambitious. The R&D and Equipment Division plans to continue analysing the proposals made, as well as to cooperate with agencies at the country ports of entry, thereby developing a seamless technical solution that reduces inconvenience and promotes efficiency and safety for all. In particular, KCS plans to engage actively with other Customs administrations and build partnerships to develop technologies that will satisfy the needs of Customs officers, clients and partners in Korea and beyond.

More information
kcsrnd@korea.kr

[1] See https://mag.wcoomd.org/magazine/wco-news-96/the-challenges-of-x-ray-image-analysis-and-the-value-of-training.

[2] Basic research aims primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view. Applied research aims at acquiring new knowledge directed primarily towards a specific, practical objective. Experimental development draws on knowledge gained from research and practical experience to produce new products or processes or to improve existing products or processes.