Penn makes smallest self-powered flying robot

Matt Piccoli's last name means small in Italian.

For a graduate engineering project at the University of Pennsylvania, he did his name one better.

Get a load of Piccolissimo, the world's smallest self-powered controllable flying vehicle.

Is it a drone?

Piccoli's adviser, Penn professor Mark Yim, prefers the term "robot," saying that drones have negative connotations for some.

Whatever the name, this thing is tiny.

Piccolissimo — Italian for very small — comes in two sizes. The littler one is smaller than an ice cube, and weighs about 2.5 grams -- less than two paper clips. The larger one, which can be steered by infrared remote control, is still quite svelte, at a shade over 4 grams.

Harvard has made a smaller flying robot, but it has a land-based power source. Penn's device carries its own batteries.

The size would be an advantage in search-and-rescue missions, because such a robot could navigate through tight spaces in a collapsed building and send back pictures to a team of first responders, Yim said.

"The smaller you are, the easier you can move through them," Yim said.

And hundreds of the flying robots working together could cover more ground, he said.

"Being in more places at the same time means you can do things in parallel," the professor said.

The robot's body is made from plastic using a 3-D printer.  It also has a propeller.

Its control mechanism draws on work that Yim did years ago.

When flying, the plastic body spins one direction, while the propeller spins the other way.

In the steerable version, the propeller is located slightly off-center, so the robot has a slight "wobble," Piccoli said.

On average, when it the device is spinning, the wobble cancels out, and the robot flies straight up. But by using remote control, the human operator can tweak the speed of the propeller, pulsing it at certain times during the rotation in such a way that the robot will fly to one side or another.

The device can be equipped with a small panoramic camera or sensors to detect dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide, Piccoli said.