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Meet the world's smallest drone: Piccolisimo

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Technology tends to move toward the bigger and better, cramming more and more features into a given product. But sometimes, less is more.

Robots are often called on to do the jobs that are too dirty or dangerous for humans, such as examining the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after it experienced multiple meltdowns in the wake of a tsunami. The most advanced robots, however, were stymied by the same problems as their human counterparts; the massive amounts of radiation inside would make it a one-way trip. Smaller, simpler robots are now being developed with such applications in mind.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have now taken this effort a step forward, debuting the world’s smallest self-powered controllable flying vehicle: Piccolissimo.

Italian for “tiniest,” Piccolissimo is the brain child of Matt Piccoli, a graduate student in professor Mark Yim’s ModLab. The robot comes in two sizes; the smaller weighs less than 2.5 grams and is about the width of a quarter, while the larger, steerable version is about 2 grams heavier and a centimeter wider.

The string of adjectives qualifying Piccolissimo as the “smallest” is necessary due to the concerted effort in miniaturizing flying robots. Harvard’s RoboBee, for example, is a few millimeters smaller than the steerable Piccolissimo, but is tethered to a terrestrial power source, limiting its range of motion.

Enabling directional control on such a tiny frame is an equally big challenge, but one that the ModLab is particularly equipped to address. One of the lab’s specialties is “underactuated” robots, ones that achieve the greatest range of motion with the fewest motors possible.
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