It’s a common scenario for police and other emergency services. They need to enter a building but don’t know what awaits them inside.
It could be a gunman or structures made dangerous by an earthquake.
A tennis ball-sized device made by US start-up Bounce Imaging could provide an answer. Six cameras instantly send a 360-degree picture to a smartphone.
The firm suggested it could sell the device for about a tenth of the cost of the cheapest rival devices.
However, a robotics expert said the technology had privacy implications.
Bounce Imaging’s founder Francisco Aguilar said the device could have a range of uses. “Disaster search and rescue after an earthquake is currently left to highly specialised teams with sophisticated and very expensive equipment,” he said.
“But we hope that with our technology it could be expanded to volunteers with low-cost units that could be tossed into air pockets and collapsed spaces in search of victims.”
The technology is still a prototype, but it was named one of Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2012.
The Boston-based company is not the first attempt to create a ball-shaped camera; researchers around the world have been trying to make similar devices for years.
For instance, in the 1990s, scientists at Columbia University in the US developed 360-degree cameras for use in remote locations, but they depended on being attached to robots.
In 2008 Scottish company Dreampact announced it had begun work on a standalone sphere containing fish-eye lenses that could be fired from a grenade launcher – but it later abandoned the project.
Others have been more successful but Bounce Imaging says they typically sell upwards from $5,000 apiece and are more cumbersome.
“The key to the design is ease of use and low cost – under $500 (£313) – relative to expensive robotic or fibre-optic alternatives that are too costly, classified, and complex,” Mr Aguilar told the BBC.
He added that other similar devices required a skilled operator to manage the unit and data – but Bounce Imaging’s technology was built following a “fire and forget” principle.
“After the ball is thrown, it sends whatever imaging and data it gathers back to a smartphone or tablet with an easy-to-use app.
“When you’re a police officer under fire working with your tactical gloves on, it is very difficult to operate a complex, often briefcase-sized, remote terminal or viewing unit.
“It’s much easier to just look on a smartphone strapped to your wrist.”
He added that his company had already received calls from police, fire, industrial and mine inspection units, “even nature photographers trying to look inside animal holes”.
“The unit has slots for other types of sensors – for example, smoke and temperature sensors in a firefighting model, methane or coal dust detectors in mine inspection units, and so on – so the ball can send back additional data along with the images,” said Mr Aguilar.
To create a full panoramic image in the dark, the device captures light in the near-infrared range.
Paparazzi and criminals
But Noel Sharkey, an expert in artificial intelligence and professor of robotics at the University of Sheffield, said that the technology could have privacy implications.
“This could be brilliant from a photographic point of view, but it could be a further intrusion on our privacy,” he said.
“You can throw it anywhere, into someone’s garden for instance, and you’ll be able to see everything that’s going on – it’s not much different from the use of a drone except that it’s much more immediate.
“So if you throw it over someone’s private property, it could be used, for instance, by the paparazzi or by criminals who could just throw it over the roof and get lots of images in between.”