Jetson Powers World’s First Operational Nano-Helicopter

by Tony Kontzer

What do you get when you combine GPUs, nanotechnology and clever engineers? A drone not much bigger than your hand.

The aptly dubbed Black Hornet, a product of Norway’s Prox Dynamics, is a 16-centimeter-long, 18-gram beast, with a mile range and 25-minute max flight time.

It’s loaded, too: the nearly silent helicopter is equipped with three cameras, a wide range of sensors and sufficient autonomous capabilities to avoid obstacles.

Used by search and rescue teams and law enforcement agencies around the world, the Black Hornet’s diminutive size presented big design challenges. After all, Best Buy doesn’t exactly have an aisle with millimeter-wide helicopter components.

“We have to build everything down to the windings on the electrical components ourselves,” John Lund, Prox Dynamics’ research and development software engineer, told an audience of interested GPU Technology Conference attendees Wednesday. “Weight really guides our entire design process. Every milligram is modeled and accounted for.”

Black Hornet is flown by search and rescue teams and law enforcement agencies around the world.

The Black Hornet’s delicate weight-to-performance balance is made especially tricky by the long list of its requirements. It needs to be able to fly in adverse conditions, be easy to use, deliver high-quality video, be quiet enough to be used covertly and operate autonomously. And it needs to do all this without impacting flight time and range.

That requires significant on-board computational resources with as little weight as possible. The challenge: NVIDIA’s tightly designed Jetson Tegra K1 embedded system, which is about 4x the size of the Black Hornet, had to be stuffed into the helicopter’s tiny form factor.

Prox Dynamics managed to do this, and its reconfigured TK1 is now part of the Black Hornet’s design. It’s delivering the power the Black Hornet needs to fly with precision, providing 4K-quality video and maintaining connectivity with the remote control, which can be operated with one hand.

Despite this accomplishment, Lund’s team continues to refine the design in a quest for further improvements, such as better autopilot capabilities, which will require even more computing power.
“We want to be able to go into tighter spaces and have more autonomy,” said Lund. “That means there’s more development to do.”

And if that’s not enough, Prox Dynamics also has an eye on producing the Black Hornet in larger volumes, and at a lower price, all without impacting the components. In the meantime, the company reports that its customers are impressed with the current model.

“The feedback we get from users is that this has been a game changer for them,” Lund said.