MIT researchers are making huge leaps in drone innovation by thinking smaller.
A team led by professors Vivienne Sze and Sertac Karaman created a customized micro-chip that will empower tiny drones to fly longer with less energy consumption.
Dubbed Navion, the chip is only about .031 square inches (described as “about the size of a LEGO minifigure’s footprint”) and consumes only 24 milliwatts – “about 1 one-thousandth the energy required to power a lightbulb.”
The tiny energy footprint allows the Navion chip to process real-time camera images at up to 171 frames per second and can measure its own inertia allowing it to maintain flight location awareness. This could allow nanodrones as small as a fingernail to fly in remote or inaccessible places that are out of reach of GPS.
“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,” Karaman said. “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.”
Last year, the MIT team developed a similar chip that processes streaming images at 20 frames per second and used 2 watts of power. This latest development expands the possibilities for even smaller, more efficient drones.
“In traditional robotics, we take existing off-the-shelf computers and implement [state estimation] algorithms on them, because we don’t usually have to worry about power consumption,” Karaman said. “But in every project that requires us to miniaturize low-power applications, we have to now think about the challenges of programming in a very different way.”
“While we customized the chip for low power and high-speed processing, we also made it sufficiently flexible so that it can adapt to these different environments for additional energy savings,” Sze added. “The key is finding the balance between flexibility and efficiency.” The chip can also be reconfigured to support different cameras and inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors.
Earlier this year, a team of MIT engineers developed an autonomous glider drone that can survey hundreds of miles of ocean surface all while being powered naturally by the wind. Created to mimic the albatross, the drone can dip a keel into the water in calm winds to travel like a sailboat – scampering across the sea 10 times faster than an average sailboat. When winds pick up, the winged UAV skims the surface of the ocean – all while using one-third as much wind.
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