ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
Technology

Japanese robotic camera welcomed aboard space station

Remotely controlled drone aims to save time on photography

The Int-Ball in action on the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO -- Japanese astronauts on the International Space Station have been joined by a floating camera drone developed by the space agency as an important -- and cute -- partner for the crew.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) started building the JEM Internal Ball Camera, or Int-Ball, in June 2016. The robot was launched into space this past June 4 and now operates in the Japanese Experiment Module as what is said to be the first-ever working drone on board a spacecraft.

The Int-Ball measures less than 15cm in diameter -- around the size of a large grapefruit -- thanks to a miniaturized control module with built-in sensors developed by the agency. Bursts of air from fans propel it through the zero-gravity environment, either autonomously or via commands from an earthbound operator.

A central camera sits like a nose between LED "eyes" that light up when images are being shot or an error is encountered. This is meant to make it easy to tell which way the Int-Ball is facing, JAXA says. The drone's internal components and exterior casing were all produced via 3-D printing.

The lack of gravity means that the Int-Ball can get by without the bulky motors needed by drones back home. Instead, stability is key -- if the camera-bot can be blown around by small air currents, its images could turn out blurry or it could get in the crew's way in the narrow spaces where they operate. The Int-Ball's control module allows for the fine control over the propulsion fans needed for this purpose.

The drone's sole job for now is taking pictures and video of astronauts' experiments and onboard equipment, which are sent to Earth in real time. Astronauts typically use hand-held cameras for photography -- a task that eats up 10% of their work time, according to JAXA. Having the Int-Ball take on some of this will save time and effort. The goal is to spare the human crew from having to spend any time on photography.

JAXA is thinking about expanding the Int-Ball's duties to include such tasks as managing supply inventories and surveying onboard problems. Adding voice recognition would let nearby crew members give commands. The little ball could become a trusty astronaut's companion like the "Gundam" science fiction franchise's Haro spherical robot, to which the Int-Ball bears a striking resemblance.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends June 30th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media