Tiny chips in tiny drones
14 July 2017
Engineers can make even sensor-loaded drones as small as a bumble bee, but how do they miniaturise the computer chip – so minidrones can one day fly themselves?
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. 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 have taken a first step in designing a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of large drone computers – and is tailored for a drone as small as a bottlecap.
The team of scientists have developed a low-power algorithm, in tandem with pared-down hardware, to create a specialised computer chip.
The key contribution of their work is a new approach for designing the chip hardware and the algorithms that run on the chip. “Traditionally, an algorithm is designed, and you throw it over to a hardware [expert] to figure out how to map the algorithm to hardware,” says electrical engineering and computer science professor Vivienne Sze. “But we found by designing the hardware and algorithms together, we can achieve more substantial power savings.”
Said professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Sertac Karaman: “We are finding that this new approach to programming robots, which involves thinking about hardware and algorithms jointly, is key to scaling them down.”
The new chip processes streaming images at 20 frames per second and automatically carries out commands to adjust a drone’s orientation in space. The streamlined chip performs all these computations while using just below 2 watts of power; and this makes it dramatically more efficient than current drone-embedded chips.
Karaman says the team’s design is the first step towards engineering “the smallest intelligent drone that can fly on its own”. His ultimate vision is for 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.
Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, news.mit.edu
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