Hunting with robot ferrets
A new type of robot being developed in the United Kingdom shows promise to make it easier and faster to detect drugs, weapons, explosives and even people being smuggled in intermodal cargo containers. Unlike existing detection technologies, this method works from the inside of standard steel freight containers, not from the outside.
The cargo-screening ferret is said to be the world’s first device able to locate all sorts of different illicit substances. “We wanted to develop a low-cost solution for cargo screening which can detect multiple substances quickly and easily and can be used with little training,” said Tony Dodd, an aerospace systems engineer at the University of Sheffield.
A key design feature Dodd employed was to place his sensor solution inside the cargo container, thereby increasing the chances of contraband detection, while at the same time reducing the number of false alarms.
Current contraband-detection methods, including bulky, expensive X-ray scanners; handheld probes; and narcotics- and explosives-sniffing dogs, all work from the outside of shipping containers. None are particularly speedy or efficient. Even best-of-breed X-ray scanners provide information only about the shape and density of objects, not their composition.
When placed inside a steel container, Dodd’s 30cm-long (about 1 foot) ferret attaches itself magnetically to the ceiling. Cargo containers are generally packed tightly, providing little space for the robot to move around.
“The idea is, the robot sticks to the container ceiling using magnetic wheels, then moves around dangling sensors around the cargo,” Dodd said.
Dodd told Homeland1 the compact robot will carry two different fiber-optic and laser sensors, small enough to detect the specific “fingerprint” of illegal substances at much lower concentrations than is now possible.
“The sensors can be designed to react to different targets and can therefore detect multiple illicit substances,” he said.
Another advantage of an inside job is that by dropping small probes down through the cargo, the robots can more accurately pinpoint the location of illicit substances, potentially reducing the time needed to unpack the container during the investigation.
Initially, Dodd sees the robot being remote controlled. After further testing, he plans to focus on developing the robot’s autonomy, which involves developing both electronics hardware and software algorithms.
Dodd expects the result will be a robot that can search the container by itself.