A new type of robot dubbed a “cargo-screening ferret” under development could one day make it easier to detect drugs, weapons, explosives and illegal immigrants concealed in cargo containers.
Designed for use at seaports and airports, the device is being developed at the University of Sheffield with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
The “ferret” will be the world’s first cargo-screening device able to pinpoint all kinds of illicit substances and the first designed to operate inside standard freight containers. It will be equipped with a suite of sensors that are more comprehensive and more sensitive than any currently employed in conventional cargo scanners.
Recent advances in both laser and fibre optic technology now make it possible to detect tiny particles of different substances. The EPSRC-funded project team is developing sensors that incorporate these technologies and are small enough to be carried on the 30-centimetre-long robot, enabling it to detect the specific “fingerprints” of illegal substances at much lower concentrations than currently detectable.
When placed inside a steel freight container, the ferret will attach itself magnetically to the top, then automatically move around and seek out contraband, sending a steady stream of information back to its controller.
Current cargo-screening methods rely on a variety of different methods, including sniffer dogs and external scanners for detecting explosives and drugs, and carbon dioxide probes and heartbeat monitors to detect a human presence.
Cargo scanners currently in use at seaports and airports generate information only on the shape and density of objects or substances. The ferret, however, will be able to provide information on what they actually consist of as well.
“It’s essential we develop something which is simple to operate and which border agents can have total confidence in,” said Tony Dodd, who is leading the project. “The ferret will be able to drop small probes down through the cargo and so pinpoint exactly where contraband is concealed.”
Working prototypes of the cargo-screening ferret could be ready for testing within two years, with potential deployment within around five years.