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Robotic Ferret Used To Fight Smugglers 54

Scientists at the University of Sheffield have created a device dubbed the "cargo-screening ferret" that is able to detect drugs, weapons, and even illegal immigrants concealed in cargo containers. The 30cm-long robot is equipped with tiny sensors that are more sensitive than any currently employed in conventional cargo scanners. The ferret will attach itself magnetically to the inside of a cargo container and sweep it for contraband, while sending a steady stream of information back to its controller. Project leader Dr Tony Dodd said, "It's essential we develop something which is simple to operate and which border agents can have total confidence in. The ferret will be able to drop small probes down through the cargo and so pinpoint exactly where contraband is concealed."


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Robotic Ferret Used To Fight Smugglers

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I, for one, welcome our new robotic ferret overlords.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:25PM (#28425997)

    for ferreting out those pesky illegal immigrants

  • by paiute ( 550198 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:25PM (#28425999)

    Robot ferret stymied by robot Bucky Katt.

    • no need (Score:4, Insightful)

      by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:51PM (#28426429)

      I suspect these people will quickly learn the true meaning of uptime. If you deploy 100 of these to search 1000 containers on a ship and you have one of them fail on you or simply run down it's batteries, then you are going to be spending all your time in recovery operations trying to find behind what box in what container you lost the freak'in thing.

      I don't expect robots to be as reliable as computers. Heck my roomba get's it self in trouble a significant number of times and it's only moving along carpet. (Frankly the roomba is amazing. the fact that it can get it self out of most trouble is an incredible feat. the fact that it still gets snagged just shows you how complex the real world is in providing unanticipated obstacles)

      • Loaded containers onboard a container vessel are sealed and inaccessible, making use of these in that situation impossible. This would have to be used during customs searches on imports, making it pointless since it doesn't remove the need for scanners or dogs. This would only allow customs agents to sit down instead of searching through the stuff manually like they do now.
      • I agree, hard to believe the glowing recommendations this ferret is getting. The only thing it didn't do was make a cup of coffee for the operators!
    • Glad I wasn't the only one to think of Get Fuzzy. Still, robot Bucky Katt's seem easy to beat. Pin them down and they go into sleep mode: []

  • by rev_sanchez ( 691443 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:28PM (#28426027)
    If we can get it down to the size of a hamster we'll be rid of drug mules too (along with the vast majority of the traveling public).
  • does it take the 'ferret' to sniff a typical container? Will this improve the turn around times from docking to unloading of the containers or will it add to it?
    • Perhaps both human and "ferret" anti-smuggling techniques will be used. Although, I'd be pretty pissed if I lost my job to a ferret.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) *

        Perhaps both human and "ferret" anti-smuggling techniques will be used. Although, I'd be pretty pissed if I lost my job to a ferret.

        According to the research site [], this is going to replace dogs and dog handlers the most:

        The team are developing a device that matches the sensitivity of a sniffer dog yet avoids the problems of becoming distracted, tired or confused associated with using an animal. The compact robot, or 'cargo screening ferret', will be able to navigate cargo loads, and detect multiple illegal substances, even in low concentrations, using a series of specially-developed sensors.

        From their government grant []:

        In this proposal we aim to develop a new approach to cargo screening where we take sensors to the contraband within cargo containers using mini-robots, providing rapid and highly sensitive detection of a range of contraband. A variety of technologies and methods are available and routinely used for the screening and detection of illegal substances and materials within cargo containers. These external screening systems are typically bulky, expensive and require ultra-high sensitivity as the sensor is remote from the cargo. Further, detailed investigation requires either time consuming unpacking of the cargo or the need for staff to enter the cargo putting them at risk of contamination from the contraband. This proposal addresses both the development of novel sensors and their delivery to the point of detection through the use of a robotic system / thus the sensing devices must be compact, low power and lightweight to be best tailored to use in this way. The development of effective sensors is designed to "make a difference" / to be able to detect specifically (and in very low concentrations) given illegal substances. The sensors developed are targeted to match the sensitivity of dogs in detecting substances, but not having the problem of distraction, tiring or confusion, with a much longer on-duty time, due to the inanimate nature of the sensor. The key advantage is that the sensors are able to detect multiple specific substances in compact devices ideally suited to mounting on the small robotic vehicle to be used for the delivery of the sensors to the region where the measurement has to be made.

        So if you're a dog that relies on sniffing out cargo containers, you have about five years to look for other work.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          So if you're a dog that relies on sniffing out cargo containers, you have about five years to look for other work.

          So the "John Henry" story of the 21st century will be between a dog and a robot ferret?

    • by kenh ( 9056 )

      You missed it - yo uhave to add the "electronic ferret" to EACH container, the idea is you won't have to open the container, the ferret will signal contraband are inside the container once detected.

  • by Atomic Punk ( 122301 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:32PM (#28426113)

    one by one your cargo containers end up missing, you chalk it up to random
    coincidence every so often, then one day while doing inventory you find a
    horde of socks^H^H^H^H^H^ *cargo* stuffed away in a cubby hole of your shipyard.

  • It attaches itself magnetically to the inside of the cargo container... Um, if you're already inside, is it really that hard to find the illegal immigrants?

  • by 10am-bedtime ( 11106 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:34PM (#28426143)

    millimeters: three hundred.
    brain stem: assundered.
    rat thing in the hold!
    scurrying, truth be told!

    upside down on the ceiling, go!
    contraband ye be kneeling? ho!
    rat thing takes 5ppm snorts:
    coke! no joke! (retry/abort)?

  • It's good to see hardware acceleration being added, but this has been working in software for years. []
  • by kenh ( 9056 )

    because what smuggler wouldn't notice the "electonic ferret" inside the container?

    In round numbers we'd need what, about a bazillion of these ferrets to put a dent in drug traffic? (since it is one device per container)

    And what, these things will run 24x7, so we'll know if anyone adds drugs while the container is in transit?

    Seriously, how long would it take for a smuggler to compromise the electronics and rewire the "ferret" in their container to never report drug/contraband contents...

    • by Yvan256 ( 722131 )

      Forget rewiring the damn things for your silly drug smuggling...


    • umm... no you put this inside cargo container, and it will attach itself and then sniff around for contraband, etc. The idea is that this will replace current methods, such as drug sniffing dogs, external scanners, and heartbeat monitors. Nothing in there says you build these into cargo containers. Heck, one of these is probably worth more than 100 cargo containers.
    • Re:Stupid (Score:4, Interesting)

      by TheCarp ( 96830 ) * <> on Monday June 22, 2009 @04:09PM (#28427887) Homepage

      I dunno about anyone else but this really feels like some major "Mission Creep" by those creeps in Washington.

      Seems to me the real problem here is that nothing labeled "Security" ever gets ratcheted down. Every time there is a new security alert, new problem to look for, it becomes the mission, here on forever. We decide "Drugs are bad mmm'kay", so we start looking for them, and finding them...and looking some more.

      Then finding drugs becomes all the justification we need to spend more and look harder.

      Never is the question asked "Is this worth it?" "Is this still an effective use of our resources?" (was it ever?)

      Such is the problem of being ruled by people who never have to actually pay for anything themselves. All they need to do is justify this years budget, and print as much money as they need to cover it.

      I am still waiting for a single shred of evidence that there is a real danger here that needs government intervention. Still waiting to hear why we need to spend so much money on this sort of research.

      Years and years of safe air travel go by, then with one incident, we feel the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater and revamp the whole system. The lack of attacks, which is errily similar to the lack of attacks before the one incident, is then justification that the system is working.

      Its a wonder the system hasn't already fallen apart under its own weight with that sort of circular reasoning ruling the day.


    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      because what smuggler wouldn't notice the "electonic ferret" inside the container? In round numbers we'd need what, about a bazillion of these ferrets to put a dent in drug traffic? (since it is one device per container)

      I don't think you're following along with the rest of the class. They're not talking about adding these to all containers, they're talking about using these as tools to perform the inspections inside of these containers once they reach port. Currently, they use humans and dogs, which is expensive, time consuming, and according to TFA sometimes dangerous. This proposal is to use this new "ferret" (I also prefer marmot, unless it belongs to nihilists) to do the inspection instead of humans/dogs.

  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @02:40PM (#28426225) Journal

    "and which border agents can have total confidence in"

    Replace 'border agents' with any group you want... and what they have confidence in does not matter. Total confidence in anything other than yourself is foolish at best. Can anyone in the US say Federal Reserve? Yes, I know, humans were in the loop on that one, but so are they on this one. Anything sold as the be all and end all or something you can have total confidence in is not familiar with how crooked border agents work. sigh. There were some folk with total confidence in electronic voting machines.....

    I will go along with this as long as every time it fails the government makes a mortgage payment for me.

    • "and which border agents can have total confidence in"

      Replace 'border agents' with any group you want... and what they have confidence in does not matter.

      Sure it matters! What they're really saying is that they have total confidence not in the robot ferret's contraband-finding ability, but in the robot ferret's border-agent-ass-covering ability. Check out these scenarios:

      • Border agent fails to detect contraband. Ass Exposure: Full Moon! You fucked up, son!
      • Drug-sniffing dog fails to detect contraband.
  • Seriously, why is it that so many news websites rarely have pictures to go with their stories?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...the robotic gerbil was!

  • I wonder what week old rotten potatoes will do to the device?
  • by wiredog ( 43288 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @03:01PM (#28426569) Journal

    Didn't they open for Led Zeppelin back in '75?

  • This thing seems pretty pointless to me. From what I could gather from the article, this needs to be inside the container for it to work. The optimal place to use this kind of implementation would be onboard the vessel during transit, but loaded containers are sealed and cannot be opened without breaking the seal. The place this would end up being implemented would be at customs facilities where they open & inspect containers either flagged for suspicion or randomly flagged. Containers enter a shipp
  • Insert roboferret, close container. Ferret scans for a particular combination of scents. If it detects this combination, it self-destructs. But the container being closed, the state of the robot is unknown until it is reopened.

    Voila! Schrodinger's ferret.
  • by Ukab the Great ( 87152 ) on Monday June 22, 2009 @03:26PM (#28427001)

    Greedo: Jabba's through with you. He has no use for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an electronic ferret.

  • "He said working prototypes of the cargo-screening ferret could be ready for testing within two years, with potential deployment within around five years."

    Seems sort of early to be claiming it's been created...

  • "Hey, what's that ferret doing squatting over my cargo".

    "No need to worry sir, those are probes".

    I hope it's kind of like a ferret version of Daggit complete with rotating ears.

  • How long till we can see Robocop live? An how long will it take for someone to hack it?
  • Pants (Score:3, Funny)

    by Stargoat ( 658863 ) <> on Monday June 22, 2009 @04:44PM (#28428487) Journal
  • I'm currently looking into developing a Robot Gerbil to perform prostate exams ...
  • Can we please make it a requirement for front page articles about new technology that there at least be a working prototype in existence before the story is allowed on the front page?

    If you keep just putting random crap like this up you might as well call slashdot something proper like QVC or HSN for scientists. This thing doesn't exist and they are telling us how great it works, theres no reason this should be on slashdot. If you're going to post shit like this, you might as well start posting stories ab

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