The United States government called upon innovators to submit novel plans for rapid, nonintrusive detection tools that will help find illicit opioids in international mail.

The opioid crisis

The abuse of opioids such as fentanyl has created an unprecedented public health crisis across the United States. In 2017, approximately 50,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. International mail — through both USPS and express consignment ­­— has been identified as a route for illicit opioids entering the United States, commonly transported in nearly pure, powdered form. Consequently, large-scale drug trafficking can occur via very small packages sent in the mail.

A collaborative effort

As part of the comprehensive government effort to address the opioid crisis, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), along with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), are seeking new tools and technologies to detect opioids in parcels moving through international service centers and express consignment facilities.

Seeking solutions

The Challenge called on innovators in a wide range of fields, from forensic science to industrial quality assurance to artificial intelligence, to help disrupt the flow of opioids into the United States by participating in this Challenge. The Challenge sought novel, automated, nonintrusive, user-friendly and well-developed plans for tools and technologies that have the potential to quickly and accurately detect opioids in parcels, without disrupting the flow of mail. The Opioid Detection Challenge, a multistage open innovation competition, will run from February 2019 through fall 2019 and award up to $1.55 million in cash prizes. The government may provide additional incentives and opportunities.

In Stage 1, the Challenge sought well-developed plans. In Stage 2, the Challenge supported solvers as they developed functional prototypes and prepared for government testing. Following the conclusion of the Challenge, the government expects to work with selected solvers to develop these prototypes into the next generation of opioid interdiction tools. The government plans to deploy these tools in international mail, express consignment facilities, and other environments across the country that call for rapid, accurate detection of opioids and related substances.

Stage 1: Seeking solution plans

The Challenge seeks novel tools and technologies that can detect opioids in parcels in international mail. Solutions were required to be nonintrusive, accurate and intuitive, with the potential to screen packages quickly.

Please note solutions were required to meet the following requirements:

  • Solutions cannot physically penetrate the parcel in any way
  • Solutions cannot involve pretreating the parcels with powders, sprays, solutions or liquids
  • Solutions must rely on information gleaned from the physical parcel, such as height, weight, appearance, handwriting, etc.; solutions may not rely on external data, such as information about the sender and recipient, that cannot be discerned from the package itself, or information from government or private/commercial databases
  • Solutions must be moderate in size, no greater than 180″ x 81″ x 78″
  • Solutions must be able to process parcels up to 27″ x 17″ x 17″ in size
  • Though not a requirement, solutions should ideally be able to process parcels up to 27″ x 21″ x 14″ in size

Learn more about international mail inspection and the ultimate metrics desired for solutions here. For solutions using artificial intelligence or machine learning, representative data was made available.

Following the conclusion of Stage 1, finalists had the opportunity to add to their teams in order to maximize their likelihood of success through Stage 2, when teams will be developing their prototypes. In order to facilitate this, Stage 1 participants were given the opportunity to share their contact information and submission abstracts, to be made available to finalists.

Stage 2: Prototyping accelerator

Developing testable prototypes

Finalists participated in a 14-week prototyping accelerator, where they developed their plans into testable prototypes. During this time, finalists received additional support, including access to mentors, guidance from government experts, educational webinars, access to additional datasets and information on current processes. Finalists participated in several webinars featuring guidance and open question periods with government and other experts. Additionally, the Challenge offered access to mentors to provide individual support to entrants. Training dataset(s) were made available to finalists as required by the solution type.

Live test event

Stage 2 culminated in a mandatory live test event, where finalists convened at a government-selected facility for on-site testing of their prototypes. A standard testing approach was applied to all solutions. DHS provided a set of articles on which the solutions were tested. Test results were a factor in determining the Stage 2 winners, but not the sole basis for selection. Test event participants were responsible for arranging their own travel and accommodation, paid for using their Stage 1 prize award. Fentanyl simulant chemicals used by the solvers for developmental testing of Opioid Detection Challenge prototypes were supplied by Arspichem, LLC (Durham, NC).