World's smallest autonomous racing drone is 4-inches in diameter

Researchers at TU Delft have created what they call the world's smallest autonomous racing drone. The done is very small with a diameter of 10 cm, or slightly less than 4-inches. It weighs in at 72 grams and uses a single camera and little onboard processing to fly around a track autonomously.

The small drone can achieve speeds that rival that of the fastest and largest automated drones. Some of the fastest drones in competitions are moving at 2 m/s. Typically autonomous drones require high-performance processors and multiple high-quality cameras with some using laser scanners for operations.

The researchers were able to design this smaller drone thanks to the algorithm they invented. Their drone captures only essential data like thrust and drag forces on the drone. To reduce the needed sensors, the team cut back to using only the estimated drone attitude for its predictive model. The drift of that model is corrected over time using vision methods.

Using the new algorithms, the team raced the drone along a 4-gate race track where it flew multiple laps at an average speed of 2 m/s. That is competitive with larger autonomous racing drones. The team says that the drone can cope with the displacement of the gates.

Other benefits to a much smaller drone include the ability to choose their trajectory more freely, and the gates are relatively larger for the smaller drones making it easier to fit through. The next steps for the drone project include better predictive control, state estimation, and computer vision. The drone tech also has the potential to be used in search and rescue and package delivery scenarios of the future.