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Bouncing Camera Gets into Dangerous Places So People Don’t Have To

The throwable device could relay panoramic images to let first responders or soldiers know what they’re getting into.
November 7, 2012

If Francisco Aguilar and Dave Young get their way, police officers and firefighters will someday carry baseball-shaped, throwable cameras along with the rest of their equipment.

Surveillance sphere: This ball-shaped, camera-laden device is designed to be thrown into dangerous situations and then wirelessly relay pictures back to a smartphone or tablet.

As the founders of Bounce Imaging, Aguilar and Young are developing spherical, camera-laden gadgets that can be tossed into dangerous places—such as the rubble of a building leveled by an earthquake—and then wirelessly relay 360-degree panoramic images of the scene back to a tablet or smartphone.

First responders and military personnel increasingly use technology to scout out places of interest without putting themselves in harm’s way. Often this means using robots capable of crawling into a building or toward a suspect vehicle. iRobot has even developed a compact, throwable reconnaissance robot called FirstLook.

Aguilar and Young, who met as graduate students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, believe that their device will be easier to operate and cheaper than existing devices. They hope to sell the device, called the Bounce Imaging Explorer, for less than $500 initially.

“The idea behind this is, we get it to a point where if you toss it into a room and it’s dangerous to go get it, the unit is essentially disposable,” Aguilar says.

Aguilar came up with the idea for Bounce Imaging’s ball-shaped after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. While there were some fiber-optic cameras that could be used to search through rubble for survivors, the equipment was expensive and required a skilled operator, he says.

Earlier this year, he started working on Bounce Imaging with Young. They’ve since won $60,000 in funding—$50,000 in prize money from a contest organized by startup accelerator MassChallenge and $10,000 in another contest, the VenCorps NYC Impact Challenge—and are working on a prototype of their first product, which they hope to start testing in January. Several police departments and SWAT units are interested in trying it out, Aguilar says, including MIT’s own police department.

Young, who previously served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, thinks Bounce Imaging’s ball-sized device could be particularly useful for the military. It would be easier to lug around than some of the unwieldy equipment he had to carry while on duty, he says. And, since it’s much cheaper than other imaging tools, it could be abandoned, if necessary.

Others have demonstrated spherical camera systems. For example, researchers at the Technische Universität Berlin built a foam-covered ball with 36 cameras inside that is capable of taking complete panoramas when thrown into the air (see “Eye Ball”).

Bounce Imaging’s device is expected to a weigh half a pound to a pound with a battery inside. It includes six wide-angle cameras that are each surrounded by an infrared LED flash. An external casing protects the components from being crushed on impact and allows the device to bounce.

The cameras can snap pictures every second or half-second, depending on the device’s settings; six pictures will give a full 360-degree view of the scene. An accelerometer and gyroscope help orient images, which are sent wirelessly to an Android-running smartphone or tablet where software stitches the images together.

Young and Aguilar hope to incorporate different sensors into the device for different applications. A firefighter might use one that includes smoke, temperature, and oxygen sensors, for example.

One obvious problem that Bounce Imaging faces is retrieval of its balls—the gadget doesn’t currently include a mechanism to bounce or roll itself back to whomever threw it, so you’d either need to go in and get it or leave it behind. The company may add a tether to allow the user to pull it back, or a beacon that allows the device to be found later on. Aguilar suggests that at some point, the company could even add motion capabilities, like that offered by robotic ball maker Sphero.

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