Drones as small as a fingernail may one day buzz overhead, thanks to research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A team in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science designed a 20 square millimeter computer chip that can process inertial and camera images — two critical components of drone flight — in real time.

It isn’t the team’s first microchip rodeo. Last year, it used a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), a type of highly configurable integrated circuit, to develop a drone control chip that required just 2 watts of power and 2GB of memory. But shrinking the design wasn’t easy.

“In traditional robotics, we take existing off-the-shelf computers and implement [state estimation] algorithms on them, because we don’t usually have to worry about power consumption,” Sertac Karaman, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and the lead researcher on the project, told MIT News. “But in every project that requires us to miniaturize low-power applications, we have to now think about the challenges of programming in a very different way.”

In the end, the researchers decided to build the new chip from the ground up. They found a way to minimize the amount of data that’s stored on its memory at any given time, reducing the chip’s power consumption to 24 milliwatts — 1 one-thousandth of the energy required to power a light bulb — and the size of its memory to 0.8MB.

They also optimized the design for image processing. The new chip can handle up to 171 frames per second, a rate even faster than what the team projected.

The chip isn’t bound for mini-drones just yet. The team’s proof-of-concept will be a miniature race car with an onboard camera that’ll stream live video. Next, it’s planning to build it into an actual drone.

“I can imagine applying this chip to low-energy robotics, like flapping-wing vehicles the size of your fingernail, or lighter-than-air vehicles like weather balloons that have to go for months on one battery,” Karaman said. “Or imagine medical devices like a little pill you swallow, that can navigate in an intelligent way on very little battery so it doesn’t overheat in your body. The chips we are building can help with all of these.”