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Engineering "the smallest intelligent drone that can fly on its own"

17 July 2017

Engineers at MIT are designing a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of larger drone computers and tailored for a drone as small as a bottle cap.

Engineers at MIT have taken a first step in designing a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of larger drone computers and is tailored for a drone as small as a bottlecap. (Credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT)

The team, led by Sertac Karaman, the Class of 1948 Career Development Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and Vivienne Sze, an associate professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, developed a low-power algorithm, in tandem with pared-down hardware, to create a specialised computer chip. They call the methodology and design “Navion”.

The key contribution of their work is a new approach for designing the chip hardware and the algorithms that run on the chip. “Traditionally, an algorithm is designed, and you throw it over to a hardware person to figure out how to map the algorithm to hardware,” Sze says. “But we found by designing the hardware and algorithms together, we can achieve more substantial power savings.”

“We are finding that this new approach to programming robots, which involves thinking about hardware and algorithms jointly, is key to scaling them down,” Karaman says.

The new chip processes streaming images at 20 frames per second and automatically carries out commands to adjust a drone’s orientation in space. The streamlined chip performs all these computations while using just below 2 watts of power - making it an order of magnitude more efficient than current drone-embedded chips.

Karaman says the team’s design is the first step toward engineering “the smallest intelligent drone that can fly on its own.” He ultimately envisions disaster-response and search-and-rescue missions in which insect-sized drones flit in and out of tight spaces to examine a collapsed structure or look for trapped individuals. Karaman also foresees novel uses in consumer electronics.

“Imagine buying a bottle cap-sized drone that can integrate with your phone, and you can take it out and fit it in your palm,” he says. “If you lift your hand up a little, it would sense that, and start to fly around and film you. Then you open your hand again and it would land on your palm, and you could upload that video to your phone and share it with others.”

For more information, visit the MIT website.

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