Ball-shaped camera ‘to help police and firefighters’

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.

‘Different’ tech

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.”

I’m bouncing back, says fugitive

A year ago Mohammed Noorul Haq was the developer behind a dozen planned towers across some of Dubai’s biggest projects. Today, he has sought refuge in India after allegedly leaving a trail of bounced cheques totalling Dh18 million (US$4.9m), and faces jail if he ever returns. Mr Haq, 50, the chief executive of the Sanali Group, is just one of many developers who have left Dubai after pitching to investors with glossy magazine adverts and roadside billboards to buy luxury apartments in buildings that never made it out of the ground. Seven months after returning to India, he is still making bold promises of repaying the people who now hold his cheques.

“We tried to sell properties in Dubai and could not find any end users,” he said in a telephone interview from Hyderabad, where he now lives. “But we have around Dh4.5 billion of assets in India. I am closing a deal right now. Give me two weeks.” Like some other small developers in need of cash to fund their projects before the downturn, Mr Haq had convinced investors into buying properties by assuring them that he would buy them back at a later date at a higher price, guaranteeing the deals with post-dated cheques that have now bounced.

Property insiders call such deals “buybacks” – transactions that are seen only in rapidly rising markets fuelled by speculators. During the peak of the Dubai property market last year, investors bought and sold off-plan properties in rapid succession, in a practice that became known as flipping. Mr Haq is said to have promised buyers a return of up to 30 per cent on deposits they had paid on apartments located on Sheikh Zayed Road and in Maritime City, another development in Dubai.

When the market turned and prices started to fall, however, the scheme quickly unravelled and Mr Haq was arrested and taken into custody more than once before being released after agreeing to pay off the investors who had brought the complaints. He later left the country. The Real Estate Regulatory Agency in Dubai warned investors in November to be cautious about entering into such buyback arrangements.

A Dubai police officer said: “Mr Noorul Haq is wanted in the UAE. There are 15 cases now against him for bounced cheques that amount to several million dirhams.” A police officer at the bounced cheques department said: “He was arrested in Bur Dubai for a short period in January. One case was filed at the Jebel Ali police station and 14 at Bur Dubai.” Unlike several other developers who became involved in buyback deals in the UAE, the Sanali Group had a record in property development in India, where the company has launched about 30 projects and completed about half of them, according to its website. But in Dubai the group has not built any of the 11 towers it launched.

Mr Haq left Dubai in February but insisted he was open to talk to his investors. “I did not run away but if I go to Dubai now and something happens to me, I can neither sell nor pay anything,” he said. “I am available to all my customers through video conferencing and I always pick up the phone.” The Sanali Group website describes the company as “a trailblazing construction company that is at the forefront of the infrastructure revolution”. The section on Dubai claims: “It is estimated that by 2009, based on current growth, your initial financial investment is expected to at least double.” It is unclear when the website was last updated.

Despite the claims on the Sanali Group website, Mr Haq acknowledges that some of his projects will be cancelled. But he hopes he can sell others. “I have invested around Dh200 million in Dubai. We have 11 projects” he said. “Four towers will be cancelled, including Sanali Hanover and our project on Palm [Jebel Ali]. We can sell plots of land. We have six towers in Dubailand for instance; we can consolidate them into three.”

But some investors remain sceptical that he will raise sufficient funds to repay them. A former sales agent with Sanali who did not want to be named said: “Noorul Haq is used to asking for another two-week deadline. He has been saying that to investors for six months.” The agent claims to have invested Dh800,000 in a Sanali buyback but does not hold a cheque. Hisham Ansari, another investor, recently travelled to Hyderabad to meet Mr Haq. “We have waited for almost two years and he has not started anything. All investors are joining hands now.”

Back in Hyderabad, Mr Haq still talks using the language of the property tycoon, frequently referring to large sums of money and forthcoming deals. While his promises may be questioned by many of his investors, he blames the downturn for what went wrong with his company. “I never thought that the market would go down,” Mr Haq said.