Adorable Japanese Camera Drone Now Lives Aboard the ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) has a new resident, but it’s not a human—it’s a drone. The small spherical drone was constructed by Japanese space agency JAXA with a special orientation system that allows it to maneuver around the ISS and capture video. Not only is it a convenient way to get footage from space without bugging astronauts, it’s an adorable little robot.

There are, of course, plenty of cameras on the ISS already, but astronauts have better things to do than snap photos. JAXA says the ISS crew spend about 10 percent of their time fiddling with cameras, so a drone that can film equipment and experiments could increase productivity. However, there were a number of hurdles to overcome before a drone would work on the station. The JAXA drone was delivered to the station in early June by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which included the first ever reused Dragon capsule.

The drone, known as “Int-Ball,” is 15 cm (5.9-inches) in diameter. Inside is a three-axis control unit that uses reaction wheels to orient the robot. Figuring out how to orient the drone was one of the first issues designers had to figure out. On Earth, a simple accelerometer can be used to determine up and down because of a little thing called gravity. On the ISS, everything is in freefall and a drone could easily lose track of the “up and down” used aboard the station. That’s why JAXA included several pink “3D marker targets.” The Int-Ball’s camera spots these objects on the walls, and uses them as reference points to maintain its orientation.

Since exposed spinning propellers could cause damage to the sensitive equipment on the ISS, Int-Ball is equipped with 12 small fans recessed into the surface. The control unit can fire up any number of fans to move around the interior of the station. The two glowing “eyes” on the front of Int-Ball are actually just for the benefit of we humans. That makes it easier to know where the drone is looking with the camera, which is positioned between the eyes.

Video from Int-Ball is beamed down to Earth in real time, where researchers at JAXA Tsukuba Space Center can monitor what’s going on aboard the station. The next step for JAXA is to improve Int-Ball’s capabilities to make it more autonomous and useful to the crew. It can’t get much cuter, though.

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