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Throwable tactical camera to be released in July

28 June 2015

A softball-sized camera developed by Boston based start-up, Bounce Imaging, can be tossed into unseen areas to relay panoramic images back to a smartphone.

The background photograph was taken using Explorer, which is shown front of image (montage: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT; photos courtesy of Bounce Imaging)

Unseen areas are troublesome for police and first responders; rooms can harbour dangerous gunmen, while collapsed buildings can conceal survivors. Now Bounce Imaging, founded by an MIT alumnus, is giving police officers and rescuers a safe glimpse into the unknown.

In July, the Boston-based start-up will release its first line of tactical spheres, equipped with cameras and sensors, that can be tossed into potentially hazardous areas to instantly transmit panoramic images of those areas back to a smartphone.

“It basically gives a quick assessment of a dangerous situation,” says Bounce Imaging CEO, Francisco Aguilar, who invented the device, dubbed 'Explorer'. Bounce Imaging will deploy 100 Explorers to police departments across the USA, with aims of branching out to first responders and other clients in the near future.

Explorer is covered in a thick rubber shell; inside is a camera with six lenses, viewing from different indented spots around the circumference, plus some LED lights for illumination. When activated, the camera snaps photos from all lenses, a few times every second. Software uploads these disparate images to a mobile device and stitches them together rapidly into full panoramic images. There are plans to add sensors for radiation, temperature, and carbon monoxide in future models.

Aguilar conceived Explorer after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, as a student at both MIT Sloan and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. International search-and-rescue teams, he learned, could not easily find survivors trapped in the rubble, as they were using cumbersome fibre-optic cameras, which were difficult to manoeuvre and too expensive for wide use. “I started looking into low-cost, very simple technologies to pair with your smartphone, so you wouldn’t need special training or equipment to look into these dangerous areas,” he says.

The Explorer was initially developed for first responders. But after winning the $50,000 grand prize at the 2012 MassChallenge, Bounce Imaging started fielding numerous requests from police departments — which became its target market.

Months of rigorous testing with departments across New England led Bounce Imaging from a clunky prototype of the Explorer —  described by Aguilar as a Medusa of cables and wires in a 3D-printed shell that was nowhere near throwable - through about 20 further iterations.

Today’s Explorer features a custom, six-lensed camera that pulls raw images from its lenses simultaneously into one processor. This reduces complexity and reduces the price tag of using six separate cameras.

The ball also serves as its own wireless hotspot, through Bounce Imaging’s network, that a mobile device uses to quickly grab those images. However, the key innovation is the image-stitching software, developed by engineers at the Costa Rican Institute of Technology.

The software’s algorithms vastly reduce computational load and work around noise and other image-quality problems. Because of this, it can stitch multiple images in a fraction of a second, compared with about one minute using other methods.


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