Flying sphere goes where humans fear to tread

TOKYO Thu Jul 14, 2011 4:23am EDT

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Its Japanese developers call it the "Futuristic Circular Flying Object" and it's designed to go where humans can't.

The radio-controlled sphere, roughly the size of a basketball, was built for search and rescue operations: to fly in and out of buildings weakened by earthquakes or other natural disasters, using its onboard camera to transmit live images of whatever it sees.

The black, open-work ball looks like a futuristic work of art, but it can hover for up to eight minutes and fly at 60 km (37 miles) an hour -- although it does slow down for open windows.

Fumiyuki Sato, at the Japanese Defense Ministry's Technical Research and Development Institute, invented and built the vehicle for roughly 110,000 yen($1,390) with parts purchased off the shelf at consumer electronics stores.

"Because of its spherical shape, it can land in various positions and tumble to move around the ground," he said of the prototype.

It zips through the air, glides smoothly around corners, and negotiates staircases with ease, emitting a soft hum.

Measuring 42 centimeters (17 inches), it boasts eight maneuverable rudders, 16 spoilers and three gyro sensors to keep it upright and is made of lightweight carbon fiber and styrene components for a total weight of 340 grams (12.3 oz).

If its lithium batteries lose power, it's been designed simply to roll to a stop to minimize the chance of damage.

"When fully developed, it can be used at disaster sites, or anti-terrorism operations or urban warfare," Sato said.

And in the meantime, he adds, there's the pure fun of testing it. ($1 = 79.015 Japanese Yen)

(Reporting by Hyun Oh; editing by Elaine Lies)

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