An Adorable Floating Robot Is Helping Astronauts on the ISS

Pablo Tucker
July 18, 2017

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has released the first images captured by its JEM Internal Ball Camera, a small spherical drone that floats around the ISS recording the work of astronauts on board.

The robotic camera drone is controlled by Japan's Tsukuba Space Center; it is capable of operating autonomously, as well, while recording video and snapping still photos.

Int-Ball was delivered to the ISS in a SpaceX cargo shipment last month - the company's first involving a reused Dragon cargo capsule - and is now operational, currently undergoing initial testing. The photos were disclosed by JAXA on July 14. The JSA says the presence of ball camera means the crew doesn't need to conduct mission photography anymore - something that usually takes up a massive 10% of their time. There's also a huge lag between the astronauts capturing the images and sending them to the crew on Earth.

The Int-Ball, which integrates elements from drone technology such as miniaturized attitude control sensors and actuators, is now undergoing its initial verification process aboard the ISS.

The device, which measures almost 15cm in diameter, will allow mission controllers to closely monitor conditions inside the space station, freeing the crew to focus on more important tasks, such as conducting experiments and making repairs.

The floating bot is equipped with a three-axis control unit, which it uses to trigger the 12 fans located along its surface.

These allow the drone to go "anywhere at any time via autonomous flight and record images from any angle".

In the meantime, Int-Ball will have to stick to playing camera operator while JAXA figures out just what this technology is capable of, but we doubt very much that the ISS human crew mind having their tiny new pal around the joint.

JAXA hopes to continually improve the drone's performance and develop its functionality, as well as "promote the automation and autonomy of extra- and intra-vehicular experiments".

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