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Pocket-sized possibilities: Meet the smallest self-powered controllable drone

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have built the world’s smallest self-powered controllable flying drone.

Named Piccolissimo — after the Italian word for pocket-sized or tiniest — the smallest robot the team built weighs 2.5 grams and is the size of a quarter. A bit larger is its slightly bigger brother, which has the added benefit of using a remote control to pilot it.

But while the drones’ diminutive size is certainly their most eye-catching detail — provided you can spot them —  creator Matthew Piccoli, a Ph.D. student with the Modular Robotics Laboratory, told Digital Trends that the project actually started as an investigation into something else entirely.


“We set out to build the world’s simplest flying vehicle,” Piccoli said. “One of the things our lab is interested in is building very simple, low-cost vehicles. After we had started work on this particular project, we realized that not only could we build something that was very simple, but we could make it very small as well.”

In terms of components, the drones feature a 3D-printed frame, regular lithium polymer battery, motor, and control mechanism. They work by spinning their bodies 40 times per second, while the single propeller spins at 800 times during that same period.

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“It’s passively stable, so it doesn’t need fancy inertial measurement sensors or control computers to keep it flying,” Mark Yim, a professor of robotics who worked on the project, said. “One of the interesting things about the design is that much of the complexity is in the design of the body which is 3D printed. Since the cost of 3D-printed parts are based on the volume of plastic in the part, and independent of complexity, the flyer is very low-cost as a consequence of being very, very small and lightweight.”

Going forward, the team sees plenty of possible applications for Piccolissimo.

“Because of their size, you could really have swarms with hundreds or thousands of these things,” Piccoli said. “That could be used for everything from search-and-rescue missions for the same price as a single quadcopter to large 3D holographic-style displays if we were to put colored LEDs on them and create a light show. There are lots and lots of different possibilities this raises. It’ll be interesting to see which ones take off.”

No pun intended, of course.