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Japan Defense Ministry Spins Flying Spherical Robot

Japan Defense Ministry Spins Flying Spherical Robot

It may not be as sophisticated as Stargate Universe's self-levitating "kino" flying orb drone, but the new aerial robot from Japan's Ministry of Defense is spherical, it's got a camera on board, and it's designed for reconnaissance. Aside from its sheer cool factor, the basic idea might be a nifty design platform for military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), on one hand, and machine-vision robots, on the other.

Engineers from the ministry's research department demonstrated what they called the "world's first spherical flying machine" at Digital Content Expo 2011, held at Tokyo's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. (You can access a video here.)

The remote-controlled sphere can move in any direction, and its spherical exterior means that it can take off and land anywhere, on surfaces of nearly any shape. It can hover in the air like a helicopter, take off and land vertically, and immediately take off again in a vertical or horizontal direction. Unlike a helicopter, the orb works like a propeller plane, so its wings let it fly forward horizontally at high speeds.

Near the ground, the sphere can either roll along or hover just above a surface. On the ground, on another surface, or in the air, if it runs into an object and gets jostled, the sphere can right itself and keep flying via its three on-board gyro sensors. The machine's control surfaces, which are usually in the rear of an airplane, have been placed in the front of the sphere to move it in the desired direction, said the ministry's engineers in a prepared statement.

The flying orb was built with off-the-shelf, commercially-available components costing about $1,400. It weighs 350 grams, or 12.3 ounces, and measures 42cm (16.5 in.) in diameter. The sphere can hover for eight minutes continuously, and its speed ranges from zero, when it's hovering, to a maximum of 60 km/h, or 37.3 miles/hour.

Because of its highly flexible motion, the orb can reach places that are difficult to access, making it potentially applicable to rescue and military reconnaissance. Army and Air Force special ops forces have deployed miniature kamikaze drones against the Taliban in Afghanistan during the past year. But these UAVs are much larger than the flying sphere. The Switchblade, for example, weighs about six pounds and measures just under two feet in length.

These same characteristics of flexible motion and ability to access hard-to-reach places make the basic technology a possible platform for machine-vision applications. Although images from the on-board camera in the video look like the imager is really low-end, there's no reason a small, higher-performing camera couldn't be mounted on-board. In fact, if you upgraded all the components, it could probably be built quite a bit smaller.

If I were a robotics or machine-vision design engineer watching the Digital Content Expo video and also a fan of the Stargate Universe TV show (discontinued this year), I'd be wondering if I could adapt this basic platform to make it more like the kino. In Stargate Universe, the kino is a flying robot loaded with sensors that records audio and visual input for later viewing, and scans the atmosphere for human-friendly environments. Its movement can be either user-controlled with a remote or control panels in a control room, or self-guided. A few of these could perhaps be adapted for use in the factory to go wherever they're needed, in the production line or the warehouse.

The engineers invented their sphere somewhat by accident during an aircraft R&D project. They explained that their plane can fly horizontally and then stand up vertically, but takeoff and landing proved to be very difficult. "As one idea to solve that problem, we thought of making the exterior round, or changing the method of attitude control," they said in a prepared statement. "That's how we came up with this machine, to test the idea."

For further reading
Slideshow: Humanoid Robots Get Real

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