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Robotic Ferret Used To Fight Smugglers

samzenpus posted more than 5 years ago | from the robotic-voles-beware dept.

Robotics 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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Mandatory post. (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28425961)

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

yep it will be great.. (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28425997)

for ferreting out those pesky illegal immigrants

Smugglers deploy countermeasure (5, Funny)

paiute (550198) | more than 5 years ago | (#28425999)

Robot ferret stymied by robot Bucky Katt.

no need (3, Insightful)

goombah99 (560566) | more than 5 years ago | (#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)

Re:no need (1)

PPalmgren (1009823) | more than 5 years ago | (#28428579)

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.

Re:no need (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28430123)

Just like the first tractors - farmers spent more time fixing the damn things than actually driving them, but still got more done.

Re:no need (1)

SlashWombat (1227578) | more than 5 years ago | (#28436133)

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!

Re:Smugglers deploy countermeasure (1)

Jason Levine (196982) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426751)

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: []

Re:Smugglers deploy countermeasure (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28428471)

Robot ferret stymied by robot Bucky Katt.

Next we'll build a wooden Badger......

scale it down (5, Funny)

rev_sanchez (691443) | more than 5 years ago | (#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).

Re:scale it down (4, Funny)

PrescriptionWarning (932687) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426177)

Be brave, Lemmiwinksbot!

So how long (1)

anglico (1232406) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426059)

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?

Re:So how long (1)

KraftDinner (1273626) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426123)

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:So how long (3, Interesting)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426217)

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:So how long (2, Funny)

Maximum Prophet (716608) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426585)

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?

Re:So how long (1)

kenh (9056) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426263)

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.

that sucks.. I wasn't logged in! (-1, Redundant)

stillpixel (1575443) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426087)

I got first post, wasn't logged in and didn't make a mention to our new robotic ferret overlords...

That's all well and good until... (4, Funny)

Atomic Punk (122301) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

OK, really? (1)

T-Bucket (823202) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426125)

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?

Re:OK, really? (1)

sabt-pestnu (967671) | more than 5 years ago | (#28428571)

Depends on how they're packaged.

rat thing in the hold! (3, Interesting)

10am-bedtime (11106) | more than 5 years ago | (#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)?

Re:rat thing in the hold! (3, Funny)

iluvcapra (782887) | more than 5 years ago | (#28427273)

"Beware the Roboferrets, my son!
With probes that snoot and ferrule claws!
Beware the cargo rats, and shun
Their infradigious smugseeking maws!"

Already implemented in software (1)

royallthefourth (1564389) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426155)

It's good to see hardware acceleration being added, but this has been working in software for years. []

Stupid (1)

kenh (9056) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426223)

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...

Re:Stupid (1)

Yvan256 (722131) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426367)

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


Re:Stupid (1)

Shanrak (1037504) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426445)

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 (3, Interesting)

TheCarp (96830) | more than 5 years ago | (#28427887)

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:Stupid (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28448037)

Although in general I agree with you, I feel I should point out that Sheffield University is in the UK, (, and so this project is unlikely to have recieved much funding from Washington.

Re:Stupid (1)

TheCarp (96830) | more than 5 years ago | (#28454397)

A very good point. I mean, the technology isn't bad, and I can understand researching this sort of thing, its only the application that seems particularly hair brained and sounds like some serious mission creep by someone. As someone who spends more time than he should on the TSA blog (talk about mission creep), I tend to assume this sort of concept originates with them.

Overall, its just silly for its intended purpose. Smugglers will just shift tactics. I envision large operations just setting up a couple of clean rooms.... drugs get vacuum sealed in one room, moved to a cleaner room and the bags washed, and then moved to a second clean room to be double packed.

very small cost addition if you are moving kilos of coke or even 10s of lbs of pot... and the amount that would fit even hidden amongst other items in a shipping container is many times those quantities. Same could be done for explosives etc.

In short, its just not going to work.


Re:Stupid (2, Informative)

Critical Facilities (850111) | more than 5 years ago | (#28428125)

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.

Some really famous last words.... (2, Insightful)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426225)

"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.

Re:Some really famous last words.... (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 5 years ago | (#28427025)

"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. Ass Exposure: Half Moon. Dog performance is partially dependent on the skill of the handler.
  • High-tech autonomous robot ferret fails to detect contraband. Ass Exposure: New Moon/Lunar Eclipse. Sure there's a sliver of a chance that if you ignored some obvious diagnostic error report or failed to send the machine in for scheduled maintenance that you'll be held accountable for its failure, but otherwise, hey if the robot didn't find it what could you do?!

See, it matters what you have confidence in. Having confidence in the actual efficacy of the robot is very different than having confidence in its ability to redirect blame.

You can make a similar comparison with regards to the banking industry and Federal Reserve -- confidence in its solidity, versus confidence in it being solid enough to let you cash in on your sketchy dealings and get the hell out of dodge before the chickens come home to roost. One is silly, the other quite rational.

Re:Some really famous last words.... (1)

spqr0a1 (1504087) | more than 5 years ago | (#28432891)

Mod parent up. This is a very good point.

Pictures? (1)

Yvan256 (722131) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426343)

Seriously, why is it that so many news websites rarely have pictures to go with their stories?

Re:Pictures? (1)

JesterUSCG (1371271) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426391)

Cause they just read and forward the AP news feed...

Re:Pictures? (1)

narfspoon (1376395) | more than 5 years ago | (#28428867)

if only... []

Re:Pictures? (1)

Xerolooper (1247258) | more than 5 years ago | (#28428981)

Here is another article with a CG Drawing [] of it.

Great news! We all remember what a fiasco... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28426349)

...the robotic gerbil was!

picture (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28426387)

pics or it didnt happen!

Lord of War (1)

Demonantis (1340557) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426489)

I wonder what week old rotten potatoes will do to the device?

Robot Ferrets? (3, Funny)

wiredog (43288) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426569)

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

Not Practical (1)

PPalmgren (1009823) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426571)

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 shipping terminal sealed and leave sealed in most cases. Therefore, this would not effect any of the drug dogs or x-ray machines currently used, which is what the article suggests. All it would do is make custom's job a little easier b/c they wouldn't have to manually dig through a 40ft container...but the cost of these devices would most likely outweigh the benefits. Mandating a container ferret in all containers would work if they were mass produced, given out freely, and very inexpensive, but that wouldn't work either. Since the container is sealed at the origin, tampering could be done to the device to prevent it from working properly. Last but not least, I recall most ceilings of shipping containers being corrugated steel, not flat. Some have plywood linings. Can this thing handle that? Also, open top containers wouldn't be able to use these. Stuff some contraband at the bottom and fill it with tires and voila. BTW, WHY is slashdot removing my formatting and making a wall of text? Argh!

A possible experiment (1)

e9th (652576) | more than 5 years ago | (#28426857)

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.

Mos Eisley Take 2 (3, Funny)

Ukab the Great (87152) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

It's a paper launch (2, Funny)

FreakerSFX (256894) | more than 5 years ago | (#28427355)

"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...

Small probes (1)

SuperKendall (25149) | more than 5 years ago | (#28427689)

"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.

Robocop (1)

Krneki (1192201) | more than 5 years ago | (#28427943)

How long till we can see Robocop live? An how long will it take for someone to hack it?

In other news (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28428071)

Robotic Horse used to smuggle fighters.

Disapointing Title (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28429561)

I was very disapointed with the title.

I expected some sort of armed autonymous vehichle.

Robot Gerbils? (2, Funny)

electricprof (1410233) | more than 5 years ago | (#28430483)

I'm currently looking into developing a Robot Gerbil to perform prostate exams ...

"Used To Fight Smugglers"? (1)

Garrett Fox (970174) | more than 5 years ago | (#28433013)

Did it retire?

New requirement for slashdot front page (1)

BitZtream (692029) | more than 5 years ago | (#28441821)

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 about perpetual motion and free energy too.

agreed (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#28453367)

If only there were some kind of requirement process before stories can be published on the front page or at least have dignified headers such as LOLIDEA: Probable Robotic Ferrets Looking for a Way to Get High

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