MIT researchers build a nano chip that can power a bee-sized drone

The Navion computer chip is smaller than a Lego character's footprint and uses just 24 milliwatts of power

Researchers at MIT have built a tiny 20mm computer chip that is used to fly a honey bee-sized drone with minimal power consumption.

The Navion computer chip design team focused on reducing power consumption and size while also trying to increase processing speed. 

Originally the chip was the size of a bottle cap, but over the course of a year the team managed to shrink the chip down to a size it said is similar to that of a "Lego figure's footprint".

The researchers claim the chip can be integrated into nano-drones as small as a fingernail, and offer vehicle navigation in remote or inaccessible places where global positioning satellite data is unavailable. Other potential uses include weather services and healthcare.

"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," said associate professor Sertac Karaman, who led with the research team along with associate professor Vivienne Sze. 

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"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."

This mini-chip consumes just 24 millwatts of power, or about one-thousandth of the energy required to power a light bulb. Using such small quantities of power allows the chip to process camera images of up to 171 frames per second in real-time.

MIT's work with nanotechnology has already produced battery-free sensors for healthcare that are said to be the size of a grain of rice and its latest research into nano drone chips will be presented at the Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits later this week.

Previously, researchers from ETH Zurich, Switzerland and Italy's University of Bologna had developed a tiny autonomous drone that used 94 milliwatts of energy.

Pictures: Courtesy of the researchers/MIT Press

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