Small chips edge smart nano-drones closer to reality

Small chips edge smart nano-drones closer to reality

Researchers working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a tiny chip that could control drones as small as a bee.

A team at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has created a processor called Navion, which measures 20 square millimetres and consumes just 24 milliwatts of power.

The is the second attempt by the team to develop a small, low-power chip. Last year, it created a small enough processor, but found it consumed two watts of power. This sent the team back to the drawing board to build a new chip from the ground up, rather than try to reconfigure the original design.

Navion can process real-time camera images at up to 171 frames per second. It can also calculate inertial measurements in real time and use all of this data to determine its position.

Design collects minimal data

To reduce the chip’s power consumption, the group came up with a design to minimise the amount of data that is stored on the chip. It also optimises the way that data flows across the device.

Professor Sze

“Any of the images we would’ve temporarily stored on the chip, we compressed so it required less memory,” said Vivienne Sze, MIT professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and co-lead on the Navion project.

The team also cut down on unnecessary operations, such as the computation of zeros, which results in a zero. The researchers found a way to skip those computational steps involving any zeros in the data.

“This allowed us to avoid having to process and store all those zeros, so we can cut out a lot of unnecessary storage and compute cycles, which reduces the chip size and power, and increases the processing speed of the chip,” said Sze.

Internet of Business says

With the IoT, small is beautiful – as is low power consumption.

MIT’s researchers said the chip can be integrated into drones as small as a fingernail, to help the vehicles navigate, particularly in remote or inaccessible places where global positioning satellite data may not be available.

The team now plans to test the chip in a miniature race car. Eventually, tests will move to a full-sized drone, before ultimate installation on a miniature one.