There are 17 million shipping containers floating in the ocean at any given time, bringing you everything from coffee and bananas to shoes and Christmas lights.

There is also a slim chance that one of those containers is carrying a dirty bomb, an explosive packed with radioactive material..

And with current technology, it’s almost impossible to tell whether any one container is safe or not.

The problem is that cargo ships are massive, up to 100 feet high, and the all-steel containers can be stacked 16 high. There is no easy way to detect a dangerous material in that environment, much less get a radio signal through the layers of metal. Different ports also vary in their security requirements and scanning procedures.

With the help of the Communitech DATA.BASE program, Chris Bennett of Kitchener-based Panoptic Telematics thinks he has a solution that will overcome technological barriers and keep shipping ports safe: a tiny sensor, ideally planted in every cargo container, that can detect beta and gamma rays – indicators of radioactive material.

The sensors would connect to one another through an intelligent network, and transmit the data they collect to satellites.

Bennett is working with researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo on a way to build the sensors and network.

His idea is a perfect fit for the DATA.BASE project, a collaboration of industry and academic partners that will use satellites and big data to track not only ships, but the cargo containers on board.

Bennett’s project is two-pronged. First, he is working with the University of Waterloo Centre for Integrated Radio Frequency Engineering to build out a tuned antennae circuit and a radio frequency sensing software that allows researchers to test their sensor in an imagined harsh shipping environment.

Secondly, Bennett’s team is working with researchers at Wilfrid Laurier. With WLU, Bennett is building a DASH7 mesh network, an open-source, low-power and long-range wireless network, to allow the individual sensors to talk to each other and transmit their data through the University of Waterloo’s antennae circuit.

An intelligent mesh network, explains Bennett, is self-healing. “Wireless devices are broadcasting information to each other and if one sensor can't see the main node it will use a second sensor to hop the data forward.”

Bennett imagines a U.S. Coast Guard-enforced program where each cargo container arriving in the country must be equipped with a sensor. The container would then be tracked from the moment it is loaded with cargo, to the shipping yards, on board the ship and over the sea.

With the sensor installed, the cargo wouldn’t have to be examined and X-rayed, two time-consuming and costly options in the shipping industry.

Instead, the sensor will use the intelligent mesh network to communicate throughout the ship and up to satellites. The tuned antennae will ensure that the network’s radio signal strength is strong enough to work through tons of steel, in inclement weather and through potential tampering.

When the cargo arrives, satellites will have gathered enough data to notify authorities if a container is ‘hot’ or not. And thanks to the intelligent mesh network, authorities will be able to pinpoint the exact container that is showing a potential issue.

Bennett’s project is focused on both hardware and software development. However, the success of the project comes down to a tiny sensor no bigger than a pinkie finger.

He wants one of these radioactivity sensors installed in every cargo container in the world.

“That’s the focus,” said Bennett. ”To put a sensor product together that can get any type of sensing data. Can you collect that data intelligently, propagate the signal, the transmission of that data up through that ship? [Then] get it collected, get it bounced up to a satellite and have it land on a ground station in some meaningful way?”

His company can make a sensor to track anything: tire pressure on transport trailers, the temperature of a cargo container full of degradable products and yes, sensors that detect potentially dangerous gamma and beta rays. He’s excited for the radioactivity sensor, and his part in the DATA.BASE project, because it’s addressing real-world problems.

“Where on the planet is there remotely a piece of information that you are trying to gather,” said Bennett, “that if you capture that information in real-time, would allow you to make better decisions about the job you are doing or the product you are handling or whatever the steps in your process may be?"