It’s a potential game-changer for preventing shipping disasters. And it’s the brainchild of a Stevens Senior Design team: Reva Grover, Dehan Kong, Laura Mathews, Daniel Wadler and Samantha Weckesser, all Industrial and Systems Engineering majors and members of the Class of 2023.
As their capstone project, the team worked directly with the U.S. Coast Guard, under the auspices of Stevens’ Maritime Security Center, to create software that is already helping the agency address one of its biggest headaches: how to prevent container ship disasters — like the six-day fire on an Italian cargo ship in July that killed two firefighters at the Port of Newark, New Jersey — by identifying potentially risky containers for inspection.
“The Coast Guard has a problem, and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have worked on helping them solve it.” — Reva Grover ’23
“The Coast Guard has a problem, and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have worked on helping them solve it,” says Grover. The problem is how to deploy a limited number of inspectors to monitor the massive number of shipping containers now being transported on the high seas. Since the first container ship was launched in 1956, the vessels have ballooned in size. That ship carried 58 containers. Now the largest of the more than 5,000 container ships in use carry more than 20,000. And 98% of container ship fires — catastrophic for crew, firefighters, ship owners and the environment — are caused by improperly stored or undeclared hazardous cargo, according to maritime insurers.
“The Coast Guard process was not data-driven,” says Beth Austin-DeFares, director of education and outreach at Stevens’ Maritime Security Center, who served as the team’s advisor. “They were inspecting cargo on a random basis. So our students studied the agency’s data and created an algorithm that rates the risk of each container.”
Weckesser fell in love with the project during a 2021 stint with the Maritime Security Center’s Summer Research Institute. With Austin-DeFares’ support, she made it her senior capstone project and recruited the team from the tight-knit Industrial and Systems Engineering community. “We’re problem solvers,” Weckesser says.
In fall 2022 they won first prize at the Maritime Risk Symposium hosted by Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, IL. In December, Coast Guard leadership traveled to Stevens to hear the team present its ideas. And in April 2023 they won the $10,000 grand prize in Stevens’ Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition.
Their Coast Guard collaborators at the Port of New York and New Jersey report a threefold improvement in their ability to detect problem containers. And Weckesser is working to expand the process and launch a business.
“It sets our students apart to send them out into the world with such rich experience in the field,” says Austin-DeFares. “It’s amazing the pathways that evolve for them as a result.”
— Joan Katherine Cramer