First responders such as firefighters or police officers are often faced with a difficult situation – they need to get into a building as fast as possible, yet it’s unsafe for them to just blindly run in without knowing what hazards await them. Some groups are attempting to address this problem by designing reconnaissance robots, although such devices can be expensive and/or complex. Boston-based Bounce Imaging, however, is putting the finishing touches on something a little more simple to use – a throwable smart ball.

The base version of the rubber-shelled ball incorporates six wide-angle video cameras and accompanying infrared LED lights, plus a gyroscope, accelerometer and microprocessor.

When thrown into a building, all of the cameras snap still images at a rate of two shots per second as the ball rolls across the floor. Those images are then stitched together into a 360-degree panoramic photo of the interior, and wirelessly transmitted to a laptop or smartphone outside the building.

A composite panoramic image obtained by a prototype ball

The gyro and accelerometer help the microprocessor make sense of the jumble of images, allowing it to know which way is up in each shot. Bounce founder Francisco Aguilar told us that other groups have tried handling that challenge entirely via software, but have had limited success.

Depending on their intended use, different versions of the ball will be equipped with different additional sensors. The firefighting model will feature smoke, alcohol and oxygen sensors; the Homeland Security version will incorporate a Geiger counter and CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) detector; and the search and rescue model will have vibration detectors and digital microphones.

According to Aguilar, prototypes should be heading out for field testing with first response crews in January. He estimates that the balls will initially sell for US$500 each, although he hopes that the price will drop significantly as the scale of production increases.

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