It won’t be cuddly, but it’ll certainly be efficient. The University of Sheffield is developing what it calls a cargo-screening ferret that uses a combination of laser and fiber-optic technology to sniff out the tiniest traces of drugs, weapons, explosives and even illegal immigrants.

Designed for use at seaports and airports, the 30cm-long, cargo-screening robot is placed inside a container where it will attach itself magnetically to the top and complete a comprehensive sweep of the freight inside. A constant stream of information is sent back to its controller as it moves about.

Laser and fiber-optic sensors are sensitive enough to detect tiny particles of illicit substances, while another sensor can pick up tiny traces of carbon dioxide, which indicates human presence.

The proposed ‘ferret’ has a number of advantages over conventional cargo-screening methods. Current scanners can generate information only about the shape and density of objects, but the ferret will be able to probe further, revealing what they consist of.

It eliminates the time-consuming and potentially hazardous unloading of freight. And by detecting human presence without the use of x-rays or heartbeat monitors, it overcomes major difficulties in combating human trafficking.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, it is expected that a working prototype of the ferret will be ready for testing in two years, with potential deployment in about five years.