From Idea to World Wide Marketing – A New Robot Called Ferret

My first reaction to the Ferret was ” I always wanted one to vacuum my floors.” Yeah, I’m sure they get that all the time. But that’s kind of what it looks like; it is, indeed, a low profile disc-shaped thing that glides around on the floor — and that is where the similarity to cleaning products ends.

The Ferret, I discovered, is a rugged industrial quality product designed for a very specific job – to give an investigator or bomb tech a quick and easy way to inspect under vehicles.

And the reason it’s round? It’s the least likely shape to get trapped in a corner.

My first exposure to this little robot was through an informative prototype version video that I found on YouTube. It featured a strapping “law enforcement agent” inspecting the underside of one car after another. With a hand-held controller and video glasses, he showed us how easy it is to maneuver the robot while still doing a superior job of inspecting pretty much every nook, cranny and hiding place that the underside of a vehicle has to offer. The lights and the movable camera seem to be successful — even with the grimiest auto underbellies — in transmitting images that are bright and clear with contrast and definition. So…I was keen to experience some hands-on control of the Ferret.

The first time I met up with Ferret inventor Ted Chavalas in person was when he invited me to join him, in the parking lot of his workshop, to show me his new quad-copter. This, I discovered, was an odd-looking quadrangle with a propeller on each of its four corners. Chavalas got the kit so he could use it with camera attached, to shoot the Ferret from the air.

We had spoken on the phone, but this was my first in-person meeting with the President of General Robotics, and its parent company, Panoscan, Inc. — not to mention the visionary and visualizer/designer of The Ferret and of Panoscan’s MK-3, high resolution panoramic camera.

After the usual “putting faces with voices”, we got right to the lift-off. Considering what he invents, it’s not surprising that Chavalas is handy with a joystick remote. With his thumbs at the ready, and with the slightest flick of his right thumb, the craft left the ground effortlessly and with surprising speed. (kind of how you always picture UFOs taking off, at a dramatic up-swooping angle.) As Chavalas maneuvered his new toy through the heavens above us, I took the opportunity to initiate some Q and A about this and his other brain children, past, present and future.

Q: Why four little propellers, instead of the usual one big one?

A: Less vibration. And when it crashes, there’s less damage.

Q: So you can anticipate crashing?

A: It’s pretty much bound to happen. Wind and other unforeseen factors can get it away from your control. And the margin for error is narrow; how long does it take a little helicopter to fall 12 feet? Not long enough to react with a remedy that’ll keep it from crashing.

Q: I’m assuming that’s less of a problem on the ground, where the Ferret makes its living?

A: Oh, much more forgiving. We had an early prototype model of the Ferret that went out of control at a trade show, and between a full human gallop and a flying leap, it was snatched up just as it was about to tip over a water cooler. So,on the ground, there can sometimes be enough time to avert disaster.

Q: So through testing was one of the final phases in the genesis of the Ferret. If it’s not a hush-hush trade secret, can you tell us some of the kinds of things you discovered and corrected during that testing phase? And who did the testing?

A: The first beta version was given a thorough workout by a major Eastern metropolitan law enforcement agency…I don’t have their permission to say which one, but big. Their bomb tech division’s analysis was the reason we created the long-range kit, which extends the offset from 100 meters to 300. It makes sense. Bomb techs want to be as far away as possible. They also observed the need for more refined sealing to keep out sand, dust, and rain. Using the product at trade shows for 8-hour stretches helped us see that some components that we thought would carry a particular load didn’t stand up, and we also found ways to simplify operation, and we made a lot of travel case refinements.

At this point, Chavalas brought his quad-rotor flying thing to a very soft landing. He handed me the controller, scooped up the machine, and suggested that the best answer to those questions would begin with a cold Pepsi, and then end up back out in the North San Fernando heat for a Ferret test drive.

Mr. Chavalas’ very neat and everything-in-its-place home is clearly a metaphor for the neatness and clarity of the thought processes that not only invent, but also engineer the high tech products he specializes in creating.

Not that his space isn’t quirky in its way: There’s a digital clock that somehow only consists of four vacuum tubes with luminous numbers floating inside them, and a hefty telescope in a tripod that invites you to look at a spectacular vista of the 5 North and beyond, as far as the smog permits.

I remarked that his light switches don’t look like mine. Mr. Chavalas, it seems, has a setup so he can control pretty much everything in his house from his iPhone – and he proved it! In early 2011, he traveled to Norway to do training on the Panoscan MK-3. The camera was purchased to create panoramic views of North Sea oil rigs. A laser scanner makes the 3-D wire frame, and MK-3 images are used to fill in the color and texture. While on the oil rig, Mr. Chavalas’s phone alerted him that the alarm system in his home had been activated. He immediately used the phone to log into his home computer, and from there he viewed each room in his house, including his garage, using the cameras mounted in the corner of every space; thus, he was able to determine that it was a false alarm…from a deep sea oil rig on the North Sea. Do you hear the James Bond theme playing? But Mr. Chavalas isn’t Bond; he’s Q.

Over that cold Pepsi, I re-initiated my Q and A.

Q: I’m guessing it was not so easy to try to get a clear video signal from under 2000 pounds of metal Was it hard to get such a clear picture from the Ferret when it was parked under a metal car 300 meters away?

A: Oh yes. I discovered, the hard way, that it’s absolutely the worst place on earth to transmit a TV picture from a little transmitter, two inches off the ground, with a metal car sitting on top of the antenna. It was quite a technical challenge to find a system that would perform well in this hostile environment. It’s was a major technical challenge. After two years of testing, I think we finally succeeded. We even took the prototype Ferret into Midtown Manhattan and tested it in Rockefeller Center. Talk about a harsh radio environment?! Our spectrum analyzer was completely jammed with signals coming from everywhere. And yet somehow the little Ferret performed perfectly without any significant interference. I am still amazed at how well it works.

Q: And the dirt and moisture problem?

A: The Ferret is not designed for forbidding terrain, it is pretty much a pavement-restricted robot; but even pavement can have gravel and other dirt on it and aside from Southern California, most of the country has to think about rain on a regular basis. Testing seals and sealants, we finally have the Ferret roadworthy except for the most extreme circumstances;, and it is water resistant, but we warn against complete submersion. It’s kind of like a car. You can drive through water up to about the body, and beyond that, you start to get into trouble.

Q: In your testing, how did the power systems hold up?

A: Very well! Not surprisingly, because it was tested millions of times before I got to it. From the outset, we decided not to reinvent the battery, since a well-known Japanese power tool company already does it better than we could ever hope to. So we designed our power system around that readily available battery.

Q: You mean the Ferret would run on my Makita drill battery?

A: If it’s charged, yeah. If a Ferret owner needs another battery, or wants another charger, we just send them down to their local hardware store.

Q: Before we get to my test drive, I want to know if it’s true that you got the idea for The Ferret at President Clinton’s second inaugural — or is that just a rumor?

A: It’s actually true. I was hired to help out with Al Gore’s “technology pavilion.” So I was there, in the bitter cold, in a tent, not far from a checkpoint, where a secret service agent would stop a car, look at documents, and then take a mirror on a stick, to try to see bad things hidden under the vehicle. I remember thinking how certain I was that he really couldn’t see much under those cars. So when I got home I tested it out, and all you can see is the outer rim of the car — barely. That leaves a lot of room for hiding dangerous things. And I got to thinking about how else that could be done, but in a way that could see as much as possible of the underside of the whole car.

Q: So the standard Ferret has a line-of-sight offset range of 100 meters. Was it difficult to boost it up to the 300 meters the bomb tech experts recommended?

A: It was a challenge, but one we knew we had to overcome — and we did. For example, we struggled with costs, because those 200 extended meters are significantly more costly per meter than the first 100. When we were finally happy with the components, we took it out to Hanson Dam, with a straight shot of more than 300 meters, and it performed beautifully. The problem is losing eyesight of that little orange disc, as it disappears into the distance. At that point, you have to rely on the camera at ground level to help you see where you’re driving it. But in a car bomb situation, the tech needs that 300 meter of offset.

Q: But wait — the system that’s like a strip, where the car drives over the camera – doesn’t it do that? It covers the underside of the vehicle, from front to back, and side to side.

A: It does, and that is a very good product. However, it can’t look up and over the drive shafts, or deep into wheel wells. And it can’t search a car that’s already parked and locked. This adventure was inspired by the stick and mirror; but when it got to the design stage, I knew I wanted to create a very effective solution, where need and function lead design. And I believe we have. Our on-board lighting and the high sensitivity movable camera make the underside of a car a much less attractive place to try to hide anything.

Later, In Chavalas’s crammed –but nevertheless very carefully organized workshop, he showed me how quickly the Ferret deploys. It was powered up and on the floor in under 10 seconds; I turned it on, and then put on the transmitter which resides comfortably in a shoulder holster; I took up and turned on the transmitter and put the video glasses on – all of this in well under 30 seconds. That’s a full 90 seconds faster than the portable speed-bump camera video that I saw on that product.

But I was anxious to get the Ferret going. I drove it out of the workshop, and onto the parking lot. Let me say that anyone who has enough dexterity to run a remote control model car can maneuver the Ferret. Getting to know what to look for, and where to look, and to do it all quickly is another matter; but driving the robot is no problem. It is responsive, can turn on a dime, and it even does a two- wheely on certain maneuvers — but that, I learned, was an engineering necessity, as were the three wheels, and the round design, of course. And let me say, I could get hooked on the video glasses. My first reaction was, “Wow!” Amazing picture quality.

Even though it was getting dark now, the powerful LED lights cast a wide circle of illumination around the Ferret. The diffused lighting covers pretty much eliminate the glare that you might expect under a dark, greasy metal car. As I drive under a random innocent bystander car, I realize again what a difficult environment this is to shoot good video in, and how successfully Chavalas has overcome that challenge. There was nothing out of the ordinary under any of the five or six cars I drove under; but had there been, I know I would have been able to see it.

Chavalas crafted every version of the Ferret in his workshop — starting with the most basic, off-the-shelf components, he built it from scratch. Like with the battery system, he used what was out there — find the best value, keep the cost of the Ferret affordable for many applications — and finally, in that same workshop, he steered the design for the entire manufacturing process. And every part of the process is branded with his signature.

Back in the workshop, I asked the inventor when he first became interested in creating new things. For as long as he can remember, he has wanted to invent things. His first really big invention was an electric car that he made in his parents’ garage when he was in high school. It was for a science project. It went 90 miles per hour, and it traveled 60 miles on a charge. When he went off to college to University of the Pacific to double major in Electrical Engineering and Technical Theatre (odd, yes, but you can see a pattern there), he sold the car for exactly $10,000. An entrepreneur even then.

As I bade my farewell to Mr. Chavalas, I found myself thinking about how those who are talented in particular ways are able to create machines and other things that are so simple in their design and function that you keep thinking, “The Ferret seems like such an obvious solution, it’s hard to believe that no one else has ever come up with it before.”

My conclusion about The Ferret is that it is a deadly serious product that does what it says it does, extremely well. And if I found myself in some situation where my safety was dependent on protection from car bombs, I would want the guard shack to be using a Ferret.

I admit, The Ferret’s a little more fun, warm and likeable than your typical industrial gear; but who says there’s any advantage to a product being boring to use?