Towards Autonomous Flight on Nano-Drones with Multi-zone Depth Sensors

This weeks guest blog post is from Hanna Müller, Vlad Niculescu and Tommaso Polonelli, who are working with Luca Benini at the Integrated Systems Lab and Michele Magno at the Center for Project-Based Learning, both at ETH Zürich. Enjoy!

This blog post will give you some insight into our current work towards autonomous flight on nano-drones using a miniaturized multi-zone depth sensor. Here we will mainly talk about obstacle avoidance, as it is our first building block towards fully autonomous navigation. Who knows, maybe in the future, we will have the honor to write another blog post about localization and mapping ;)

A Crazyflie 2.1 with our custom multi-zone ToF deck, a flow deck and a vicon marker.

Obstacle avoidance on nano-drones is challenging, as the restricted payload limits on-board sensors and computational power. Most approaches, therefore, use lightweight and ultra-low-power monocular cameras (as the AI-deck) or 1d depth sensors (as the multi-ranger deck). However, both those approaches have drawbacks – the camera images need extensive processing, usually even neural networks to detect obstacles. Neural networks additionally need training data and are prone to fail in completely new scenarios. The 1d depth sensors can reliably detect obstacles in their field of view (FoV); however, no information about the size or exact position of the obstacle is obtained.


On bigger drones, usually lidars or radars are used, but unfortunately, due to the limited weight and power consumption, those cannot be carried and used on nano-drones. However, in 2021 STMicroelectronics introduced a new multi-zone Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensor – with maximal 8×8 pixel resolution, a range up to 4m (according to the datasheet), a small form-factor and low power consumption of only 286mW (typical) it is ideal to use on nano-drones.


In the picture on top, you can see the Crazyflie 2.1 with our custom ToF deck (open-sourced at https://github.com/ETH-PBL/Matrix_ToF_Drones). We described this deck for the first time in [1], together with a sensor characterization. From this, we saw that we could use the sensor in different light conditions and on different colored obstacles, but from 2m on, the measurements started to get incomplete in all scenarios. However, as the sensor can detect invalid measurements (due to interference or obstacles being out of range), we can still rely on our information. In [2], we presented the system and some steps towards obstacle avoidance in a demo abstract, as you can see in the video below:

The next thing we did was to collect a dataset – we flew with different combinations of decks (flow-deck v2, AI-deck, our custom multi-zone ToF deck) and sometimes even tracked by a vicon system. Those recordings amount to an extensive dataset with depth images, RGB images, internal state estimation and the position and attitude ground truth.


We then fed the recorded data into a python simulation to develop an obstacle avoidance algorithm. We focused on only the ToF data (we are not fusing with the camera in this project, we just provide the data for future work). We aimed for a very efficient solution – because we want it to run on-board, on the STM32F405, with low latency and without occupying too many resources. Our algorithm is very lightweight but highly effective – we divide the FoV in different zones, according to how dangerous obstacles in those areas are and then use a decision tree to decide on a steering angle and velocity.


With only using up 0.31% of the computational power and 210 μs latency, we reached our goal of developing an efficient obstacle avoidance algorithm. Our system is also low-power, the power to lift the additional sensor with all accompanying electronics as well as the supply of it totals in less than 10% of the whole drone. On average, our system reaches a flight time of around 7 minutes. We refer to our preprint [3] for details on our various tests – they include flights with distances up to 212 m and 100% reliability and high agility at a low speed in an office environment.

As our paper is currently submitted but not yet accepted our code and dataset are not yet released – however, the hardware design is already accessible: https://github.com/ETH-PBL/Matrix_ToF_Drones

[1] V. Niculescu, H. Müller, I. Ostovar, T. Polonelli, M. Magno and L. Benini, “Towards a Multi-Pixel Time-of-Flight Indoor Navigation System for Nano-Drone Applications,” 2022 IEEE International Instrumentation and Measurement Technology Conference (I2MTC), 2022, pp. 1-6, doi: 10.1109/I2MTC48687.2022.9806701.
[2] I. Ostovar, V. Niculescu, H. Müller, T. Polonelli, M. Magno and L. Benini, “Demo Abstract: Towards Reliable Obstacle Avoidance for Nano-UAVs,” 2022 21st ACM/IEEE International Conference on Information Processing in Sensor Networks (IPSN), 2022, pp. 501-502, doi: 10.1109/IPSN54338.2022.00051.
[3] H.Müller, V. Niculescu, T. Polonelli, M. Magno and L. Benini “Robust and Efficient Depth-based Obstacle Avoidance for Autonomous Miniaturized UAVs”, submitted to IEEE, preprint: https://arxiv.org/abs/2208.12624

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