Super-smart, bee-sized drones now possible with latest tiny chip

20 Jun 2018

The Navion chip could be used on drones such as this, or even much smaller ones. Image: aerogondo2/Shutterstock

MIT researchers have unveiled a new computer chip that could help power tiny, bee-sized drones over great distances with excellent precision.

The evolution of processing hardware has taught us that in nearly all cases, it is a matter of making things smaller and more efficient, allowing for the computer to shrink from the size of a family living room to one that fits on your watch.

Now, it is the turn of drones to dramatically shrink in size to the point that we might not be able to tell them apart from bugs, as MIT has unveiled a new, tiny computer chip called Navion.

Expanding upon the already minute chip produced last year, the Navion is just 20 sq mm and consumes as little as 24mW of power, or about one 1,000th the energy required to power a lightbulb.

With this amount of power, the chip is able to process real-time camera images at up to 171 frames per second, as well as inertial measurements, to determine where it is in a given place.

Given its size and power, the researchers behind this new chip believe it will be ideal for use in nanodrones as a way to help them navigate in remote or inaccessible places where GPS is unavailable.

It could also be ideal for bigger robots that need to travel over greater distances while running on a limited power supply, such as a rover traversing another planet.

Navion chip beside quarter dollar coin

The Navion chip placed beside a quarter-dollar coin. Image: MIT

Imagining its future

Explaining how they reduced the chip’s power consumption, the MIT team went about finding how to minimise the amount of data stored on the chip at any given time.

This was achieved through advanced compression technology, but also by cutting down on extraneous operations, such as the computation of zeroes (which results in a zero), simply skipping them entirely.

Speaking of other potential applications, Sertac Karaman, one of the team’s co-leads on the project, said: “I can imagine applying this chip to low-energy robotics, like flapping-wing vehicles the size of your fingernail, or lighter-than-air vehicles like weather balloons that have to go for months on one battery.

“Or, imagine medical devices like a little pill you swallow, that can navigate in an intelligent way on very little battery so it doesn’t overheat in your body. The chips we are building can help with all of these.”

The researchers now plan to demonstrate the technology by putting the chip on a miniature race car and display its live stream during a drive, but eventually they hope to test it on a nanodrone.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic