Japanese Defense Ministry shows world's first spherical flying machine


October 26, 2011

The Japanese Defense Ministry's flying sphere (Photo:

The Japanese Defense Ministry's flying sphere (Photo:

Image Gallery (6 images)

Star Wars fans (like me) will get a vague sense of deja vu when they see this flying sphere in action. Weighing in at about 12 ounces (350 g), the 16-inch (42 mm) diameter flying ball can launch and return vertically, maintain a stationary hover and zip along at up to 37 mph (60 km/h). Coupled with the ball camera we reported on earlier this month, it could become a valuable reconnaissance platform. Who knows? In time, more advanced autonomous versions might actually be used to train would-be Jedi knights. Once again, life imitates art.

Announced last summer by the Technical Research and Development Institute at Japan's Ministry of Defense (JMD) and recently unveiled at Digital Content Expo 2011, the world's first spherical air vehicle will likely be deployed in search and rescue operations deemed unsuitable for traditional aircraft. As for other possible uses, the sky just may be the limit.

"Because the exterior is round, this machine can land in all kinds of attitudes, and move along the ground. It can also keep in contact with a wall while flying. Because it's round, it can just roll along the ground, but to move it in the desired direction, we've brought the control surfaces, which are at the rear in an ordinary airplane, to the front," said a JMD spokesperson.

For something that looks so ungainly, the rig exhibits surprising stability. Thanks to three onboard gyro sensors, the device effectively maintains its orientation and altitude, even after collisions. Numerous control surfaces also assist with attitude control. The current prototype, which cost about US$1,400 in parts, can maintain a hover for a respectable eight minutes. Now, if only someone would perfect that light saber we've all been waiting for.

The video below shows the flying sphere in action.

About the Author
Randolph Jonsson A native San Franciscan, Randolph attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland before finding his way to the film business. Eventually, he landed a job at George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic, where he worked on many top-grossing films in both the camera and computer graphics departments. A proud member of MENSA, he's passionate about technology, optimal health, photography, marine biology, writing, world travel and the occasional, well-crafted gin and tonic! All articles by Randolph Jonsson

Looks cool, but nothing revolutionary in my opinion, as it still uses air to move along. When will THAT change, huh..

Renārs Grebežs

Para invitarte a viajar en pelota, por todas partes... ...y seguir siendo un caballero.

Gonzalo Villouta Stengl

this is more then a cool toy, you have to admire the AI algorithms involved here.

Shahar Shocron

Cool, but it\'s hard to see how it advances the art. What can this do that can\'t be done by other, simpler, quieter technology?


It is not a sphere just a globe armature. It could have been shaped in a cube. A sphere has a continuous surface. This flying joke is not new and not important.

Guy Macher

Recon, hover to 37 mph I like it, a larger version could make a killer 360% weapons platform that would be almost invisible to RADAR.

Facebook User

I\'d be too scared to be near it. If that thing accidentally falls on you and your fingers get caught in it, you\'d probably lose your fingers and thumbs.....and hands. Like others have said, this is nothing exciting. I actually have a toy that can do something like this - the only thing different is my toy can only hover for about 30 seconds between charges, it\'s harder to control it (unstable), and it doesn\'t have a camera.

Sambath Pech

It\'s just a toy. Anything that interrupts the airflow stops it from working, so adding a payload of any sort is impractical. They added gyros and controllers to an engine - nothing more.

Marcus Carr

This is so cool- I hope that it\'s range can grow with further innovation.If they get these to work together they could really cover a lot of ground to help find missing people.

Carlos Grados

Usual sequence of criticism: It is impossible. It is impractical. It is too expensive. Is it too late to buy stock ? Once a proof-of-concept demonstrator flies, it is only a matter of time before it shows up at WalMart.

Edward Maner

Is is possible to purchase the plans for this device? I would like to build one, I am a private pilot and I think this would be a device that could be scaled up to fly a person.

Tony O'Neil

it would make a great smart bomb

Leonard Foster

Once again critical readers reveal that- (a) They haven\'t read the article and/or (b) They are highly lacking in imagination.

\"Because the exterior is round, this machine can land in all kinds of attitudes, and move along the ground. It can also keep in contact with a wall while flying.\"

What can THIS do that other aircraft cannot do, indeed!



keep it away from \"The Tall Man\". BOY!


The spherical cage does seem like a no-brainer in retrospect. Makes one wonder why so many concept demonstrators to date haven\'t bothered to do so, if only to increase survival in rough landings. Shrink slightly, add a stun baton feature to the cage for a crowd control swarm, herding unwanted critters away from your lawn. (Apologies to Neal Stephenson)


Really can\'t understand all the sour grapes! Seems pretty cool to me, and simply as a way to do recon as good as or better than the tracked recon robots used in law enforcement, and industrial inspection, seems worth the effort. Seems this thing could, for instance, zip around inside a crippled nuclear reactor and give an overview of what conditions were like inside, way more effectively, and more quickly than a tracked vehicle. I also like the pilots comment on scaling one up for human flight, sounds good!

Jim Konopliski

I thought the Hexakopter was more impressive especially since one guy made it working alone. I don\'t see the purpose of the spherical framework, they called part of that \"control surface\" but I guess the rest is there just to complete the ball shape. As a toy I guess you could fly it for awhile until the battery dies, then play soccer? If you crash it into a hill it\'ll tend to roll to the bottom? If you fly it into trees it\'ll be more liable to get caught in the branches rather than fall to the ground? I can\'t figure out the point and I don\'t think they explained it.


What\'s new, what\'s revolutionary and what is patentable, to interest a research company...

This is a RC stunt plane in a cage....

Sure it is cool, but 9 axis IMU\'s have been around for a while, and are relatively easy to program, and use (or just plug in a 3 axis RC gyrp controller into the control servos, and presto it works... Flick a switch and it hovers.... Drop it onto the ground and it will roll-around the place.... come on, people have been doing this (putting carbon cages around the craft.. with quadrotors for years, to stop them damaging the propellers when flying indoors........

If it was recolutionary, I want it to be able to fly a detailed GPS course, then fly through the coridors of a building and come back to base, over a 100 mile distance, that will be useful.. otherwise it is just a flying soccerball...


the Japanese are not stupid, they wont show anyone what they can use it for. why do people think that war needs payloads and people, this thing is menacing, it is better that US drones as it can fly in any direction and roll. scary isn\'t it !!!

Eric Malatji
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