Say "konnichiwa" to the International Space Station’s (ISS) newest resident, a floating robot ball designed to document space experiments and simultaneously steal your heart.
Japan’s space agency, JAXA, has been showing off its newest drone, the not-so-catchily named Internal Ball Camera or Int-Ball, whose mission is to float around the ISS recording images and videos. The robot is remotely controlled from JAXA's Tsukuba Space Centre back home on planet Earth and able to beam back videos in real-time, although it is also capable of working autonomously as well.
Japan being Japan, it looks like an exceptionally cute character from a sequel of the Pixar movie Wall-E. The whole thing was created using 3D-printed parts. Int-ball is like a high-tech floating melon, with a diameter of around 15 centimeters (5.9 inches), that drifts around in microgravity with the aid of 12 propellers, according to the Japan Times.
Another important component is the JAXA-developed Miniaturized Attitude Control Sensors and 3-axis control unit, a tiny box system of lightweight wheels and gyroscopes used to keep the robot balanced and upright. Of course, in microgravity maintaining your stability is a top priority and pretty hard to achieve. It’s also equipped with ultrasonic and inertial sensors to navigate around the tight corners of the ISS.
The drone was delivered by Space X's Dragon spacecraft launched on June 4, and is currently in a testing phase in the JAXA Kibo Experiment Module onboard the ISS. Its job is to help reduce the workload of the ISS astronauts who spend a fair amount of their time, over 10 percent of their working hours, documenting their tasks with cameras.
In future missions, JAXA hopes this drone will be able to carry out even more complicated work totally independent from onboard astronauts, such as checking supplies and ensuring the station is in good shape. However, it's likely it will mainly serve as a kind of autonomous scout, being that it is a limbless floating ball.
Int-Ball is not the first robot who’s joined the crew on the ISS. There’s “Robonaut” and “Robonaut 2,” two humanoid robotic companions, and a whole host of machines that rely on some particular fiddly robotics. Although it is arguably the sleekest looking and undoubtedly the most adorable.