Japanese robotic camera welcomed aboard space station

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 the first-ever working drone on board a spacecraft, according to JAXA.

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.

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