Ocean Cargo Increasingly Safe Thanks to This Industrial & Systems Engineering Team

The winners of the 2023 Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition are providing the United States Coast Guard with a software solution to refine their container inspection process.

Cargo ship fires are wreaking havoc on international trade, the safety and security of ship crews, and the environment. Mismanaged and improperly stored hazardous material cargo in our oceans has led to a spike of incidents over the past five years, with the financial toll exceeding $100 billion and the environmental ramifications exacerbating an already existential threat. But help is on the way from an inspiring but perhaps unlikely source: a team of five Industrial & Systems Engineering undergraduate students in Stevens' School of Systems and Enterprises.

While Stevens seniors create dozens of exciting Senior Design team projects en route to their degrees and a display at Stevens' annual Innovation Expo, this Senior Design project goes several steps further. It is not a concept. It is a fully formed but still-evolving product with the most important backer one could have regarding ocean safety: the United States Coast Guard.

Additionally, the Maritime Security team – consisting of Reva Grover, Dehan Kong, Laura Mathews, Daniel Wadler and Samantha Weckesser – finished first in April's Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition, taking home the $10,000 grand prize, the first Industrial & Systems Engineering Senior Design team to do so.

"It’s a testament to the level of education that we get to receive within the School of Systems and Enterprises," said Weckesser moments after the Ansary competition. "I feel so honored to be with that school."

The groundwork for this project was laid two years ago. Beth Austin-DeFares, director of education and outreach at Stevens' Maritime Security Center, has a longstanding relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard and regularly places SSE students in research projects and summer internships with the Coast Guard. Such was the case in the summer of 2021, when Weckesser and Grover conducted research in support of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Maritime Security Center's Summer Research Institute.

When Austin-Defares reached out to John Hillin, Safety and Security Division chief for Coast Guard Sector New York, before the 2022-23 academic year looking for ways students could help, the hazardous cargo issue was top of mind for Hillin.

"This particular project was one I thought could really benefit us tremendously. I was really happy when Beth's team embraced the project," said Hillin. "It just takes one container on a ship with thousands of containers to catch fire to not just destroy that container and the surrounding containers, but the entire ship."

At issue for the Coast Guard was its rudimentary random inspection process. It's not feasible to check every container on massive ships. There is no realistic way to amass the manpower needed to ensure that level of security. The Coast Guard needed to search in a more targeted fashion and increase their chances of looking in the right places.

Industrial & Systems Engineering is a small major but a tight-knit community, so this group already knew each other well and jumped right in, enthusiastically working toward a common goal with significant real-world consequences.

"We are going to find the bad containers before they detonate, before they’re on boats," said Weckesser. "In order to save lives and the ocean. In order to mitigate risk, to save money, to save ships."

It's safe to say the team experienced a final undergrad year that strayed significantly from the norm of the typical college senior. Much of their spare time was spent at Coast Guard installations meeting with uniformed personnel and observing on-site inspections.

No pressure. It's only the U.S. Military asking for your help to save billions of dollars and the environment.

"I think the first meeting, we were definitely intimidated. We didn’t realize they would all be in uniform," said Grover. "But they were very supportive and we got to know each other well over the year. Eventually, we came to be known by them as ‘The Stevens Kids.’ So, they’re all aware of what we’re doing and we’re all grateful for the experience."

After Coast Guard personnel outlined their needs, the team hatched a plan and got to work. They set out to build a software program that would use a targeting inspection algorithm that would identify the risk of each hazardous cargo container that arrived at the seven Port of New York and New Jersey container terminals.

The Coast Guard supplied the team with historical data and machine learning was used to identify the risk associated with each container based on that data. The team met twice per week, with Weckesser, Mathews and Kong fine-tuning the machine learning and algorithm aspect of the project while Grover and Wadler designed a user-friendly Power BI dashboard.

The algorithm would provide a target score for each container, with four tiers. For example, a Tier 1 score would signify that that a container must be inspected while each succeeding number indicated less risk. Wadler's dashboard also added an important element crucial to Coast Guard personnel.

"Some companies will change their name following an incident, hoping to avoid detection," he said. "I added a column that displays the address of the company associated with each container to help prevent them from hiding previous wrongdoings."

Members of the winning Hazardous Cargo team at the 2023 Innovation Expo. From left to right: Daniel Wadler, Samantha Weckesser, Reva Grover and Dehan Kong.Members of the winning Hazardous Cargo team at the 2023 Innovation Expo. From left to right: Daniel Wadler, Samantha Weckesser, Reva Grover and Dehan Kong.

Although the fruit of this team's labor is not yet fully ripened, the Coast Guard is already getting a taste. The prototype is not in full use just yet, but the Coast Guard is already implementing the principles of the algorithm in inspections at the Port of New York and New Jersey. According to Hillin, the efficiency at detecting issues in containers increases threefold when the team's principles are applied.

On top of that, other ports have expressed interest in implementing the product and it has backing from admirals down through the chain of command.

"I’ve been in contact with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and they’re anxiously excited about what’s happening here," said Hillin. "Most importantly, I’ve got the container inspectors on-site really excited about it. When the brass is excited about it, it happens. When the boots on the ground are excited about it, it really happens. This is going to happen."

The Coast Guard backed up its support with Hillin attending the Innovation Expo and Ansary Competition in person, regularly updating Coast Guard colleagues throughout the day and celebrating over the phone when the team was announced as the winner.

There was one other crucial member of the team who was notified of the victory over the phone. Mathews was unable to attend in person. It's OK, she had a valid excuse. She is one of the most decorated track athletes in the history of Stevens athletics. A sprinter and hurdler with four school records to her name, Mathews was one of few Division-III athletes competing against the premier Division-I athletes in the country at the prestigious Penn Relays in Philadelphia.

Mathews was simultaneously experiencing the peak of her academic and athletic pursuits. She had just finished running in the 100-meter hurdles when she was notified by Wadler that the team had advanced to the final three of the Ansary Competition. And she found out during her lunch break that they had won.

"I jumped out of the booth and yelled 'Oh my goodness, we won!' she said. "This confused most of the people."

Even though their undergraduate studies are nearing an end and the Innovation Expo has come and gone, the team's work with this product is not necessarily finished. Hillin hopes to put the product in use locally sometime in August or September. Additionally, Weckesser is going back to work with Hillin and the Coast Guard this summer to continue the team's work. And with all five members ticketed for graduate school, the opportunity to further the project remains.

On the heels of such an accomplishment, does the magnitude of it ever sink in? Yes.

"It goes beyond my wildest expectations coming in, especially with this planning on being a nationwide rollout," said Weckesser. "Every port will use some version of this system that we’ve created here. That’s crazy."

"This is definitely a very valuable experience. It helped us get incredible real-world experience," added Kong. "We got to work with real Coast Guard data and learn how to work with others to solve a high-scale, real-world problem."

This experience in many ways exemplifies the value of a Stevens education. Learning how to work within a team construct and receive real-world experience with experts is fundamental to the University's vision for its students. Grover, Kong, Mathews, Wadler and Weckesser will no doubt benefit for years to come. But more importantly, the world will benefit with safer ocean transit and more economic stability.