MIT Researchers Develop Miniature Brains for Miniature Drones

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Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT

MIT researchers are working to create miniature brains for miniature drones – designing a computer chip specifically for the purpose.

“Standard computer chips for quadcoptors and other similarly sized drones process an enormous amount of streaming data from cameras and sensors, and interpret that data on the fly to autonomously direct a drone’s pitch, speed, and trajectory,” explains MIT News. “To do so, these computers use between 10 and 30 watts of power, supplied by batteries that would weigh down a much smaller, bee-sized drone.”

“Now, engineers at MIT have taken a first step in designing a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of larger drone computers and is tailored for a drone as small as a bottlecap.”

The specialized computer chip represents a “new approach” in design, say researchers Sertac Karaman and Vivienne Sze.  “Traditionally, an algorithm is designed, and you throw it over to a hardware person to figure out how to map the algorithm to hardware,” Sze says. “But we found by designing the hardware and algorithms together, we can achieve more substantial power savings.”

“We are finding that this new approach to programming robots, which involves thinking about hardware and algorithms jointly, is key to scaling them down,” Karaman says.

Small drones aren’t new – but giving them the same power and capabilities of larger machines is.  Partially funded by the Air Force and the National Science Foundation, the team’s goal is to develop “the smallest intelligent drone that can fly on its own.”

“The new chip processes streaming images at 20 frames per second and automatically carries out commands to adjust a drone’s orientation in space,” says the report. “The streamlined chip performs all these computations while using just below 2 watts of power — making it an order of magnitude more efficient than current drone-embedded chips.”

“Imagine buying a bottlecap-sized drone that can integrate with your phone, and you can take it out and fit it in your palm,” he says. “If you lift your hand up a little, it would sense that, and start to fly around and film you. Then you open your hand again and it would land on your palm, and you could upload that video to your phone and share it with others.”

While tiny drones may never be useful for long range or outdoor applications, their uses indoors or in cluttered environments could be significant.


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