Scientists have created the first nano drone capable of flying itself without a human operator, breaking ground on new ways to miniaturize artificial intelligence (AI) and limit processing power.

Six researchers from ETH Zurich and the University of Bologna figured out a way to maximize the drone’s bite-sized power and memory limitations using DroNet, “a lightweight residual convolutional neural network (CNN) architecture,” according to a paper they released earlier this month.

Antonio Loquercio, one of the lead scientists on the project, told The Register that the machine’s computation and navigation controls were created fully onboard the device.

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“This means, nano-drones are completely autonomous. This is the first time such a small quadrotor can be controlled this way, without any need of external sensing and computing. The methodology remains however almost unchanged using steering angle and the collision probability prediction [in DroNet],” Loquercio said.

The scientists said their work could be instrumental in a number of different ways. Drones are already being proposed for a number of different uses, with Amazon’s Prime Air service keen to start operations once more regulatory work is finished. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already in use in farming, industrial inspections, natural disaster assistance, and hazardous area management, as well as in surveillance and security, the paper noted.

“To expand the class of activities that can be performed by UAVs, a recent trend of their evolution is their miniaturization. Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) quadrotors have already started to enter the nano-scale, featuring only few centimeters in diameter and few tens of grams in weight,” they wrote in their study.

However, these nano-drones still lack the autonomous navigation capabilities of their larger counterparts, the paper noted, since their computational power is constrained by their small form factor.

The researchers provided detailed designs and explanations on how they got around size constraints using a platform developed by both universities called PULP. The platform functions by using GAP8, a chip that is nearly the size of a quarter.

“The authors estimate the power breakdown for small-size UAVs; they show that the maximum power budget for on-board computation is 5% of the total, the rest being used by the propellers (86%) and the low-level control parts (9%),” they wrote.

“The problem of bringing state-of-the-art navigation capabilities on the challenging classes of nano and pico-size UAVs is therefore strictly dependent on the development of energy-efficient computing architectures, highly optimized software and new classes of algorithms.”

The tiny tech will no doubt have an effect and the burgeoning drone expansion. Just last month, US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the specifics of a pilot program where companies like FedEx, Alphabet and Uber can test the use of unmanned aircrafts across the country. President Donald Trump’s Integration Pilot Program was inaugurated last year.

“Our country is on the verge of the most significant new development in aviation since the emergence of the jet age,” Chao said at a press conference in April. “We’ve got to create a path forward for the safe integration of drones if our country is to remain a global aviation leader and reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer.”

The programs will involve drones in everything from infrastructure inspections to pest control and emergency services. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the use of unmanned aircrafts could lead to nearly $82 billion in potential economic benefit as well as the creation of 100,000 jobs in the next decade.

Loquercio and the other scientists said the popularization of Internet of Things (IoT) devices is also having an effect on demand for drones and other machines of this size.

“Full autonomy of nano-scale UAVs is extremely desirable as it would make them the perfect ‘smart sensors’ in the Internet-of-Things era,” according to the paper. “The development of the IoT is fueling a trend toward edge computing, to improve scalability, robustness, and security. While today’s IoT edge nodes are usually stationary, autonomous nano-UAVs can be seen as perfect examples of next-generation IoT end-nodes, with high mobility and requiring an unprecedented level of on-board intelligence.”

The researchers are still testing the drone, and its flying capabilities are still limited due to the type of information its AI is getting about the surrounding environment. It can only fly horizontally, and not up or down.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • Scientists have created a miniature drone that can operate without human intervention.
  • Drones are already being tested for package delivery, emergency services, building repair and more.