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Image format standardization: a revolution in the making

29 May 2017
By Tim S. Norton, Global Market Director, Ports & Borders, Corporate Strategy & Marketing Group of Smiths Detection and Asha Menon, Senior Technical Officer, Procedures and Facilitation Sub-Directorate, WCO

Non-intrusive inspection (NII) technology is now being used by Customs administrations around the world to increase the efficiency of their inspection capability, and speed up the clearance process. It consists of various technologies with different capabilities that are able to identify specific goods and materials during the inspection process. Among them are high-energy cargo scanning systems, which allow the screening of different modes of transport such as cars, trucks, railway wagons and sea containers, as well as personal luggage, packages, parcels and other mail through either X-ray or gamma-ray imaging systems.

Several technology providers currently compete on the market. They offer specific scanning equipment, with each machine producing proprietary data, which requires a specific workstation or software as well as specific training on how to use it. As a consequence, Customs administrations usually have a fleet of scanning equipment, each producing data which is not easily shareable.

In order to address the demands for more system interoperability capability and centralize the management of scanning operations, Customs administrations have been demanding that technology suppliers use one specific format for the images and data produced by their equipment. This lack of standardization led to the WCO and NII suppliers – AS&E, L3, Leidos, Nuctech, Rapiscan, and Smiths Detection – taking the initiative to a global level, thereby chartering a mission to create an international standard for scanned images and associated metadata.

Unified file format

Discussions on the development of such a standard had been ongoing for some time at the WCO, which led to an informal group of Customs and industry representatives being tasked with formulating a plan on how to proceed. This informal group evolved into the WCO Technical Experts Group on Non-Intrusive Inspection (TEG-NII), which first met in September 2016 with a mandate to develop a ‘unified file format’ (UFF).

The Group benefited from the efforts of Mr. Joris Groeneveld – Co-Chair of the TEG-NII – leading the initiative at Dutch Customs, a pioneer when it comes to scanning operations, which had already been working on a unified image format. NII industry representatives have, of course, also been instrumental in developing the standard, dedicating a lot of resources and time to ensure its success.

As part of the development process, the TEG-NII decided to break down the deliverables into three phases of work with specific aims:

  • Phase 1 – testing to determine whether the file format being used by Dutch Customs could be read by the user interfaces of other NII manufacturers;
  • Phase 2 – generating a standardized, evolved version of the file format used during Phase 1 in order to develop a UFF that would become the standard electronic data interchange (EDI) output for the NII scanning industry, and testing the capacity of all industry leaders to handle the new standard uniformly and adequately;
  • Phase 3 – generating an upgraded version of the format for use by all technology providers, which would continue to evolve as an ongoing, standardized industry-accepted format.

The project is currently in Phase 2. Right now, NII suppliers are developing the architecture of the UFF and the associated testing platform.

Expected outcome

Countries wishing to centralize the management of scanning operations performed by various NII systems and the handling of inspections from a remote control centre will now be able to do it easily. The tool that is being tested will harmonize the format for the images and data that are being produced by different NII systems. Moreover, the utility of such a system lies also in the capacity to exchange images between border posts and between countries.

Last but not least, standardizing the format of an NII image output would enable a huge database of scanned images to be created, not only collected from national Customs offices, but also from other Customs administrations, which could be used by all to train officers or program machines to recognize objects.

Join the discussion

Discussions at the TEG-NII are not limited to the UFF. Issues such as NII equipment and related topics such as the tendering process, post deployment service and maintenance agreements, as well as a training curriculum, have also been addressed.

Feedback from WCO Members gathered during the Group’s meetings will enable the WCO Guidelines for the Procurement and Deployment of Scanning/NII Equipment to be enhanced, and possibly lead to the development of new tools or instruments that will assist Members in the deployment of their NII equipment.

The Group offers Customs representatives a unique opportunity to discuss issues openly and frankly with industry experts. The latest meeting in May 2017 had a great turnout, but the WCO would like to encourage even more administrations to attend future meetings as well as to suggest discussion items that can be added to the TEG-NII agenda.

Along with NII industry members, the WCO would like to encourage all its Members to participate in future meetings of the TEG-NII, to provide input on the further development of the global standard, and to fully support the initiative.


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