MIT Engineers will present the Navion: an autonomous miniature smart drone with a miniature brain.

Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT
Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT

Drones have shrunk in size over the years until we now have flying prototypes the size of a bumblebee. The onboard cameras and sensors are also tinier than ever. However, so far, one component of the drone has steadfastly resisted miniaturization: the computer chip. A powerful chip, powered by batteries, is required to process an enormous amount of streaming data from cameras and sensors, and interpret that data on the fly to autonomously direct the drone to avoid obstacles and reach its destination. This chip and batteries combo unfortunately weigh down a much smaller, bee-sized drone.

MIT engineers have taken a first step in designing a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of larger drone computers (2 watts vs. 10 – 30 watts) and is tailored for a drone as small as a bottlecap. The “Navion” will be presented at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference, held this week at MIT.

Future practical applications could target disaster-response and search-and-rescue missions in which insect-sized drones flit in and out of tight spaces to examine a collapsed structure or look for trapped individuals. This technology will also surely find its way into other innovative consumer electronics products and drone photography.