Q&A: How can new sensors make trade more secure?

We spoke to  Julie McCann, from the Department of Computing
We spoke to Julie McCann, from the Department of Computing

We spoke to Professor Julie McCann about her work on secure tracking devices that contributed to the first quantum-secure cross-border trade.

Towards the end of June, a consortium of scientists, industry and government officials watched anxiously on UK shores as a ship embarked on its journey to Singapore and slowly disappeared out of sight. On board lie building materials, due to travel over 10,000km away and across many seas. Online trading documents would confirm if and when the ship reaches its intended destination. This journey, the first of its kind, was years in the making.

A new smart tracking system included online trading documents and sensors which were developed by scientists at Imperial College London, to ensure the building materials would arrive at their destination safely. This was the first cross-border quantum-secure trade to take place in the world.

We spoke to Professor Julie McCann (JM) from the Department of Computing to find out about her team’s work in making this happen, and what her research could mean for the future of trade.

Q - What is the ’Internet of Things’ system for cross border secure trade?

A - JM: It sounds quite complex, but the Internet of Things simply describes a means to connect and exchange data. In this instance, Imperial developed sensor devices to track the physical shipment items while other consortium members developed digitally secure documents and the supporting distributed ledger system (DL).

The distributed ledger - an online platform to store data - held the digital Bill of Lading (trading documents) and the data from monitoring the building materials in transit. This meant that the condition of the materials was recorded and stored for the whole journey.

This system is a new way to deliver items across borders in the most effective and secure way.

Q - Do we not we track shipments already?

A - JM: Yes, but when we usually track shipments, the boat as a whole, and occasionally the crate, is tracked. We wanted to track the contents within the crate. This is a challenge as it is difficult to send data from a crate that is stacked underneath other crates, and network access is not always guaranteed. We had to use ’Opportunistic Networking’, where the data jumps to the networks it finds as the boat moves along the various coasts. To do this we had to equip the tiny device with several radios. We use encrypted sensor data to feed back in near real-time the condition of the contents which can notify if the physical items have been compromised in any way.

The physical sensors work together to form a system that ’keeps an eye out’ for changes to external conditions - like a group of meerkats that alert to danger. Uniquely, these sensors are ’self-monitoring’ meaning they also alert if the sensors themselves have been tampered with.

Moisture, temperature, vibrations and movement can all be tracked using this system - but it can also recognise, to an extent, if someone has replaced or damaged what is inside.

Q - How do the sensors track that?

A - JM: We train the system using machine learning, so they can distinguish between a physical break-in or a cyber-attack verses a harmless wave or an authorised person accessing the documents. And we have to fit all this into a set of tiny devices.

Q - Why is this important?

A - JM : In the future we can use this to transport goods across the world, from car parts to food and important cultural artefacts.

If items or produce on the shipment deteriorates halfway through a journey, the companies transporting the goods will be alerted that the shipment has been damaged, so the items can be re-routed to a better market without reaching their original - now redundant - destination first.

This is more reliable for the consumer and a lesser burden on the environment.