Researchers work on making smaller chips for drone brains

MIT scientists and researchers are tackling an issue that poses a difficult challenge for drone operators and designers of the future. Engineers at the school are working on shrinking down drone technology and have built prototypes that are the size of a bumblebee. While tiny cameras and sensors have been developed for these tiny drones, one thing still perplexes researchers – the computer chip brain of the drone.

The challenge is that standard computer chips for quadcopters and other drones of the same size process lots of data and therefore consume lots of power and are often large. Drones can slurp as much as 10-30 watts of power and fitting the drone with batteries large enough for the power demand would weight down smaller drones the size of bees. MIT has developed a new computer chip that consumes only a fraction of the power of existing chips.

That researchers call it "Navion" and it uses a fraction of the power needed by other drones and is tailored to drones as small as a bottle cap. Researchers developed a low-power algorithm along with pared-down hardware to create a specialized computer chip. The key to this work was a new approach to designing the chip hardware and algorithms that run on that chip.

Researcher Vivienne Sze says that normally you send an algorithm to a hardware person to figure out how to map the algorithm to the hardware. Sze says that the team figured out that to design the hardware and algorithm together allowed a more substantial power savings. This is the key to scaling down hardware and algorithms says Sze.

This new hardware and software could usher in an era of tiny drones. Professor Sertac Karaman says that the tech could allow users to one day buy a drone the size of a bottle cap that could integrate with your phone allowing sharable video to be recorded.