The researchers decided to build a specialized chip from the ground up, developing algorithms to process data, and hardware to carry out that data-processing, in tandem. "With this platform, we can do all kinds of optimizations, which allows tremendous power savings. "If you lift your hand up a little, it would sense that, and start to fly around and film you." He ultimately envisions 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.Tweaking a formulaSpecifically, the researchers made slight changes to an existing algorithm commonly used to determine a drone’s "ego-motion," or awareness of its position in space.The power savings came partly from modifications to the amount of memory stored in the chip.The new chip processes streaming images at 20 frames per second and automatically carries out commands to adjust a drone’s orientation in space."These experiments are also done in a motion-capture room, so you know exactly where the drone is, and we use all this information after the fact," Karaman says. As a result, the chip itself was able to store less data and consume less power.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. Karaman also foresees novel uses in consumer electronics.Memory savingsFor each version of the algorithm that was implemented on the FPGA chip, the researchers observed the amount of power that the chip consumed as it processed the incoming data and estimated its resulting position in space.The key contribution of their work is a new approach for designing the chip hardware and the algorithms that run on the chip. Thus far, they have managed to miniaturize almost every part of a drone, except for the brains of the entire operation — the computer chip. Reducing the number gates with co-design allowed the team to chose an FPGA chip with fewer gates, leading to substantial power savings.Karaman, says the team’s design is the first step toward engineering "the smallest intelligent drone that can fly on its own. The streamlined chip performs all these computations while using just below 2 watts of power — making it an order of magnitude more efficient than current drone-embedded chips."As transistors have gotten smaller, there have been improvements in efficiency and speed, but that’s slowing down, and now we have to come up with specialized hardware to get improvements in efficiency," Sze says.A typical FPGA consists of China Jacquard Rugs manufacturer hundreds of thousands of disconnected gates, which researchers can connect in desired patterns to create specialized computing elements. To formalize this process, they developed a method called iterative splitting co-design that could strike the right balance of achieving accuracy while reducing the power consumption and the number of gates.
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