Science 3 min read

Why Star Wars BB8 Fans Will Love NASA's new Int-Ball Drone

John F. Kennedy Space Center | Tony Craddock |

John F. Kennedy Space Center | Tony Craddock |

Last month, the ISS welcomed a new resident in the form of a spherical drone. This Japanese camera drone can float in the air to record and transmit videos and still images.

Previously, we covered a few robotic breakthroughs that would help robots gain more ground towards doing what humans can’t.

Besides strength and sensitivity, mobility is a must for robots. Without free movement abilities, robots’ strength and unique sensibilities won’t be of much help.

We’re happy to share with you a novel application of new robotics that will also remind you of some of your favorite Sci-fi characters.

Meet Int-Ball, the new robot photographer aboard the International Space Station.Click To Tweet

These Ballbots Gliding Atop a Sphere

In our robotic breakthrough piece, we introduced SIMbot. We even likened it to a Star Wars BB8-precursor because of the mechanism of its movement. The comparison stops there.

Designed by Ralph Hollis at the Carnegie Mellon University, SIMbot is an omni-directional mobile robot, composed of a longi-linear frame gliding over a sphere.

Although more mobile than most robots thanks to the spherical induction motor, SIMbot’s body (as tall as a person) and the need to be in constant touch with the ground restrict its motion.

SIMbot, and other ballbots for that matter, could be brought to a halt by the smallest bump or obstacle on the floor. Obviously, there’s a way to go before these planet-side ballbats are as nimble as the BB8.

However, a new Japanese spherical robot, named Int-Bot, may have just stripped SIMbot from the honorific title of real-life BB8.

ISS Crews “Waste” a lot of Time Taking Pictures!

Because of the high costs of low-orbit trips, and the short-term missions, ISS crews have a tight schedule. Every task has been set for them in advance so that astronauts make the most of their stay.

Recording videos and taking pictures for scientific or public communication purposes is one of those time-consuming tasks.

According to JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), ISS crews spend 10% of their working time taking photos.

The agency is looking for new ways to free astronauts’ time by entrusting some tasks to robots.

Say Hello to Int-Bot, the Japanese BB8

On June 4th, 2017, the first ever reused SpaceX Dragon spacecraft delivered a new JAXA camera drone to the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM Kibo) on the ISS.

Designed by JAXA based on existing drone technology, Int-Ball (Internal Ball Camera) is a small, almost entirely 3D-printed, spherical drone 15 cm in diameter (5.9 inches) and weighs 1 kg (2.2 lbs).

Int-Ball | JAXA | NASA

The cute Int-Ball, with its two huge “eyes”, can float in space thanks to a system of 12 propellers. To enable Int-Ball to navigate and adjust its trajectory in microgravity, several reference points, or what JAXA calls 3D marker targets”, have been placed on KIBO walls.

Int-Ball, which can fly autonomously or be remote-controlled from the ground, records still and moving images and send them in real time to JEM operators.

JAXA has published some of Int-Ball’s first camera work here.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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