The launch of the Raspberry Pi Zero is a powerful sign of just how cheap computing power is becoming. Priced at just $5, and about two inches by one inch, this is a genuine programmable computer. It manages to include a 1GHz ARM11 core processor and 512MB of SDRAM.  It is 40% faster than the original Raspberry Pi which was launched at $20-$35 (depending on model) just three years ago, and thousands of times more powerful than the original IBM PC.

This is much steeper progress than even Moore’s Law would suggest. And it is significant for drones, because the Raspberry Pi is powerful enough to turn a basic radio-controlled toy into an autonomous drone able to fly itself and plot a course. As you might expect, there have been plenty of student projects based on the Raspberry Pi and quadcopters, like this “Autonomous, Cardboard, Rasberry Pi Controlled QuadCopter” built by four sophomores at Olin College for Principles of Engineering class.

The Pi is not just for laboratory demonstrations. The Open Relief project which seeks to use new technology to help disaster victims is building a fixed-wing drone  with a Raspberry Pi for a brain. The project came about when Open Relief co-founder Shane Coughlan found that in the wake of the 2011 quake and tsunami access to the disaster area was extremely difficult, there were few details about conditions in the affected areas and information was difficult and  dangerous to obtain. Coughlan worked on remapping the disaster area using GPS to give aid agencies a clearer picture of the situation.

The sub-$1,000 drone will have a variety of uses in a similar situation:

“On-board image-recognition software will give the drone the ability to recognize situations and objects on the ground such as people, smoke, fire, and roads. It can be customized with other sensor packages, including monitors for radiation levels and weather conditions.”

Cheaper computer will mean ever cheaper drones. They can be used for humanitarian purposes — but they can equally be used for warfare.