MANCHESTER — Granite State Manufacturing outfitted a full-sized cargo carrier with an electronic security system last month for a customer that was vague about what was to be shipped inside.
The customer, after all, was the U.S. Navy.
"They said we can't tell you why we want it, but it's for something really important," said Glenn Lawton, president of GSM.
Much of GSM's business is with the military or military contractors, so secrecy is nothing new. Lawton was excited about this project because of its potential outside the military in other areas where en-transit security is a requirement.
GSM outfitted the cargo carrier, which looks like any other stacked on the deck of a barge or on a flat-bed train car. Though large and built to withstand the rigors of travel, the containers are vulnerable to experienced thieves with the proper equipment and nerve to cut the lock or burn through the side, grab a portion of the contents and head out for sale on the black market.
GSM is partnering with Tamper Proof Global Systems Corp. of West Bend, Wis., which patented a new system that could prevent such theft, or at least alert authorities or the shipping company as it is happening.
The technology is remarkably simple. An electric current circulates throughout the container, and if the current is broken, a signal sounds. But the current isn't just rigged to entries or other accessible points.
It is distributed via copper wire laid out in a 2-millimeter mesh, resembling a window screen within a fabric coating. The wires are so close together there is very little room for anything to get through without disrupting the current.
"If somebody drills a hole in it, it becomes an open circuit," Lawton said. "The coolest thing about this is its simplicity."
And it doesn't take much of a drill to trigger the alarm. Lawton showed a sample piece of the lining material featuring the mesh, sprayed with a rubber-like coating designed to protect the copper wiring from shifting cargo. In the middle stands a quarter-inch bit drilled into the material and clearly cutting through the wire at several points.
"You could do it with a smaller drill and maybe get lucky," Lawton said. "We're thinking that nobody's going to try to steal anything with a hole smaller than that."
GSM divided the 20-foot cargo carrier for the Navy into five compartments, using 4-by-8-foot sheets of a synthetic boarding material each covered with the wire mesh and protective coating. Any disruption can be pinpointed to an exact point on the carrier and relayed to security officials in a variety of ways, depending on the customer's preference.
Lawton said the initial Navy order included the possibility of nine more containers to follow the original, but with the federal government's current financial state, it may be a while before the next order is processed.
Lawton said GSM, which is based on the West Side and has a facility near the airport and another in Baltimore, Md., is ready when the Navy is. He said the technology also can apply to anything that can be wrapped in the copper mesh and that the company is just starting to market the product to see who is interested.
Lawton said he's also been tracking thefts on cargo carriers, which can be tucked away in a corner of a large transport facility and are easy targets. He's been surprised at the lengths people will go to and the products they take. He read an update recently about six pallets of bourbon whiskey with an estimated value at $250,000.
"I'm sure somebody didn't want that to get lost," he said. "One of the things we're researching a lot is the amount of thefts in cargos and what types of thefts are and how many thefts there are. To me, it's surprisingly high."