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Robo-weasel could sniff out contraband

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2009
Krista D. Zanolli, krista.zanolli@laurin.com

SHEFFIELD, UK – A sophisticated robot with a suite of laser and fiber optic-based sensors is being developed to detect illicit substances concealed in cargo containers at airports and seaports.

The 30-cm-long robot, dubbed the “cargo-screening ferret,” would be the world’s first to operate inside standard freight containers and the first designed to detect illegal immigrants and all kinds of illicit substances, including drugs, weapons and explosives.

Dr. Tony J. Dodd, who is leading the project at the University of Sheffield, said the robot’s name has more to do with what it does than with how it looks. Long and thin like a ferret, or its cousin, the weasel, it can navigate through small spaces, emulating the animal’s slinky movements.

“We are very excited about the possibilities for the cargo-screening ferret. We believe the robot will enhance the ability of border agents to detect contraband in cargo and will act as a deterrent to smugglers,” Dodd said. “We hope the ferret robot will form part of a team of robotic detection systems for the UK Border Agency.”

Current methods for screening cargo rely largely on sniffer dogs and external scanners that provide information only about the shape and density of objects or substances within the containers. The ferret, on the other hand, will house sensors that will be able to detect not only the tiniest traces of illicit substances found in drugs and explosives but also the smallest amounts of carbon dioxide, indicating human presence.

When placed inside a steel freight container, the ferret will attach itself to the top. Magnetic wheels will allow it to move about in search of contraband, all the while sending a steady stream of information back to the controller.

Dodd said that the design of the magnetic wheels has proved more challenging than anticipated. The original design, which consisted of a solid cylindrical magnet for the wheel, proved too expensive. With the hope of maximizing the magnetic force while keeping costs down, the researchers plan to redesign the wheels using a ring of small magnets. They are currently seeking an expert to help with the design, which they deem critical to the project.

A key benefit to the cargo-screening ferret is that it will reduce the need for customs and security officials to enter or unpack freight containers, a time-consuming job that exposes officers to potential danger or to contamination from harmful substances, Dodd said.

TNferret_Robo-Ferret.jpg
This is a prototype of the cargo-screening ferret. Courtesy of EPSRC.

“It’s essential we develop something that is simple to operate and that border agents can have total confidence in,” he said. “The ferret will be able to drop small probes down through the cargo and, so, pinpoint exactly where contraband is concealed.”

Because the current design is based on the robot clinging magnetically to the sides or ceiling of the container, the possibility that newly manufactured containers could be constructed of nonferrous materials could prove challenging. Although Dodd admits that this could be troublesome, he emphasizes that the many millions of steel containers in the world will continue to be used for many years.

The three-year project, which began in October 2008, is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and also involves the University of Glasgow, Loughborough University, City University (London) and defense and security specialist QinetiQ Inc.

Working prototypes of the cargo-screening ferret could be ready for testing within two years and for deployment within five years.


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