Tiny MIT chip helps bee-sized drones navigate

Autonomous bug bots are on the horizon.

You may have seen drones that behave like bees, but drones the size of bees are another matter. How do you help it navigate when virtually any conventional computing power would be too heavy and power-hungry? Make it incredibly tiny, that's how. MIT scientists have developed a new navigation chip, Navion, that's small enough (about 0.03 square inches) and power efficient enough (24mW) that it can fit in a honeybee-sized drone, yet powerful enough to process camera images at 171 frames per second.

This is ultimately a second shot at the concept. Early work tweaked an existing design, but it still used a 'massive' 2W of power. MIT designed Navion from the ground up, and achieved its power savings in part by minimizing the amount of data the chip stores at any given time, maximizing its flow. It even goes to the extreme of cutting out math calculations that involve zeroes, since the answer will always be zero. All these efforts helped cut the necessary memory down from 2MB to just 0.8MB, further saving on size and power draw.

Don't expect to see pictures of a bee-sized flying drone just yet. MIT's first focus is on testing the chip with a miniature race car, followed by a regular drone and then a mini drone. The technology isn't just limited to airborne bots, mind you. It could also apply to smart pills that navigate to where they're needed, or virtually any vehicle that may need to last for a very long time on one battery charge.