Imagine consumers (and businesses alike) buying a bottle cap-sized drone that they can integrate with their smart phone, fly from the palm of their hand and land it there again, all while instantaneously uploading video and photos captured by the drone onto their phone and sharing it with others. Current ‘mini-drone’ prototypes are certainly small enough to fit on a person’s fingertip, light enough that they only require 1 watt of power to lift off of the ground (or your palm); however, the missing piece is the computers inside the drone. These mini-drones can’t fit a computer that provides enough power or memory to function meaningfully. Essentially the drone’s ‘brains’ are lacking.

Standard computer chips for quadcopters and other similarly sized drones process an enormous amount of streaming data from cameras and sensors onboard the drone, and interpret that data on the fly to autonomously direct a drone’s pitch, speed and trajectory. To carry out these tasks, the computer on the drone would need to use between 10 and 30 watts of power, supplied by batteries that would weigh down a small drone.

In one pioneer program and study, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed a computer chip that uses a fraction of the power of larger drone computers and is tailored for drones as small as a bottle cap. The key to this technology is the algorithms that run on the computer chip. By designing the hardware of the drone and the algorithms of the computer chip at the same time, these MIT researchers found that they could achieve substantial power savings.

Memory can be expensive in terms of power –Sertac Karaman, Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, as well as an Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has a solution. He says, “Since we [want to] do on-the-fly computing [when operating mini-drones], [the idea is,] as soon as we receive any data on the chip, we try to do as much processing as possible so we can throw it out right away, which enables us to keep a very small amount of memory on the chip without accessing off-chip memory, which is much more expensive.”

The idea behind designing a small (or mini) drone that has powerful computing capabilities is to better serve disaster-response and search-and-rescue missions –smaller drones can fit in and out of tight spaces to examine collapsed structures or look for trapped people. While this is only the beginning of the ‘bigger brain’ for the mini-drone, it is a big step towards finding that sweet spot, and increasing drone use in even more ways.