MIT’s new Navion chip for better Nano drone navigation

Read an article this week in Science Daily (Chip upgrade help’s bee-sized drones navigate) about a recent chip created by MIT, called Navion, that reduces size and power consumption for electronics used in drone navigation. The chip is also documented on MIT’s Navion project homepage and in a technical  paper describing the new VIO (Visual-Inertial Odometry ) Navion chip.

The Navion chip can perform inertial measurement at 52Khz as well as process video streams of 752×480 stereo images at 171 frames per second in a 20 sqmm package consuming only 24mW of power. The chip was fabricated on a 65nm CMOS process line.

Navion is the result of a collaborative design process which optimized electronics required to perform  drone navigation processing. By placing all the memory required for inertial measurement and image analysis and all the processing hardware on the same chip, they have substantially reduced power consumption and space requirements for drone navigation.

Navion architecture

Navion uses a state of the art, non-linear factor graph optimization algorithm to navigate in space.  It doesn’t sound like  DL neural net image recognition but more like a statistical/probabilistic approach to image mapping and place estimation. The chip uses image compression, two stage memory, and sparse linear solver memory to reduce image processing memory requirements from 3.5MB to less than 1MB.

The chip uses 3 inputs: two images (right &  left image) and IMU (inertial management unit sensor) and has one (complex output), its estimate of the current state of where it is on the map.

Navion processing creates and maintains a 3D map using stereo images and provides navigational support to move through that space.  According to the paper, the Navion chip updates the state(s) and sparse 3D map at a KF (Kalman filter) rate of between 16 and 90 fps. Navion also offers configurations options to maximize accuracy, throughput or energy efficiency.

Navion compares well to other navigation electronics

The table shows comparisons of the Navion chip against other traditional navigational systems that use Xeon, ARM or FPGA chips. As far as I can tell it’s either much better or at least on a par with these other larger, more complex, power hungry systems.

Nano drones are coming to our space, sooner than anyone expects.


Photo credit(s): System overview from Navion project page (c) 2018 MIT;

Picture of chip with layout  from Navion project page (c) 2018 MIT;

Navion: A Fully Integrated Energy-Efficient Visual-Inertial Odometry Accelerator for Autonomous Navigation of Nano Drones (c) 2018 MIT

Zipline delivers blood 7X24 using fixed wing drones in Rwanda

Read an article the other day in MIT Tech Review (Zipline’s ambitious medical drone delivery in Africa) about a startup in Silicon Valley, Zipline, that has started delivering blood by drones to remote medical centers in Rwanda.

We’ve talked about drones before (see my Drones as a leapfrog technology post) and how they could be another leapfrog 3rd world countries into the 21st century. Similar, to cell phones, drones could be used to advance infrastructure without having to go replicate the same paths as 1st world countries such as building roads/hiways, trains and other transport infrastructure.

The country

Rwanda is a very hilly but small (10.2K SqMi/26.3 SqKm) and populous (pop. 11.3m) country in east-central Africa, just a few degrees south of the Equator. Rwanda’s economy is based on subsistence agriculture with a growing eco-tourism segment.

Nonetheless, with all
its hills and poverty roads in Rwanda are not the best. In the past delivering blood supplies to remote health centers could often take hours or more. But with the new Zipline drone delivery service technicians can order up blood products with an app on a smart phone and have it delivered via parachute to their center within 20 minutes.

Drone delivery operations

In the nest, a center for drone operations, there is a tent housing the blood supplies, and logistics for the drone force. Beside the tent are a steel runway/catapults that can launch drones and on the other side of the tent are brown inflatable pillows  used to land the drones.

The drones take a pre-planned path to the remote health centers and drop their cargo via parachute to within a five meter diameter circle.

Operators fly the drones using an iPad and each drone has an internal navigation system. Drones fly a pre-planned flightaugmented with realtime kinematic satellite navigation. Drone travel is integrated within Rwanda’s controlled air space. Routes are pre-mapped using detailed ground surveys.

Drone delivery works

Zipline drone blood deliveries have been taking place since late 2016. Deliveries started M-F, during daylight only. But by April, they were delivering 7 days a week, day and night.

Zipline currently only operates in Rwanda and only delivers blood but they have plans to extend deliveries to other medical products and to expand beyond Rwanda.

On their website they stated that before Zipline, delivering blood to one health center would take four hours by truck which can now be done in 17 minutes. Their Muhanga drone center serves 21 medical centers throughout western Rwanda.

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