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September 28, 2021

World's smallest man-made flying structure

[The tiny winged microchip  next to an ant for scale]

[The tiny winged microchip, next to an ant for scale.]

From New Atlas:

Engineers at Northwestern University have given microchips a new ability — the power of flight. Inspired by wind-dispersed seeds, these "microfliers" are shaped like tiny propellers to catch the wind, and may be the smallest flying structures ever made by humans.

Electronic devices are always getting smaller, with complex systems now able to be shrunk down to sub-millimeter sizes to make for more portable consumer electronics, less invasive body implants, and wider environmental monitoring.

In the lattermost case, dispersing these sensors could be a challenge. Previous studies have developed systems to drop them from small drones or even insects, but the new work takes a different approach. The Northwestern team looked to the seeds of plants such as the maple tree, which are shaped like tiny propellers. That way, they don't drop straight to the ground but catch the wind, allowing the plant to distribute its seeds over much greater distances.


[The winged microchip is made up of electronic components at the center, with three wings that catch the wind.]

For their study, the researchers designed their tiny devices to have similar aerodynamics, based on computer modeling of how a variety of seeds fly. The resulting microflyer is made up of electronic components clustered in the center of three wings, all assembled on a rubber substrate. The electronics give the device a low center of gravity, allowing the wings to catch the wind, and the whole thing measures less than 1 mm across, which the team claims makes them the smallest flying structures ever built.

"Our goal was to add winged flight to small-scale electronic systems, with the idea that these capabilities would allow us to distribute highly functional, miniaturized electronic devices to sense the environment for contamination monitoring, population surveillance [my italics], or disease tracking," says John Rogers, lead author of the study.

In tests, the team embedded sensors, a power source, memory, and an antenna onto the microflier. To demonstrate the wide range of jobs that these devices could perform, the team kitted them out with different sensors that could detect particulates in the air, pH balance in water, or sun exposure.

The researchers say that they could be dropped from planes or buildings to disperse over a wide area. And once they've finished their work, the microfliers will break down in the environment, thanks to the materials they're made of.

"We fabricate such physically transient electronics systems using degradable polymers, compostable conductors, and dissolvable integrated circuit chips that naturally vanish into environmentally benign end products when exposed to water," says Rogers. "We recognize that recovery of large collections of microflyers might be difficult. To address this concern, these environmentally resorbable versions dissolve naturally and harmlessly."

The research was published in the journal Nature. The team describes the work in the video below.

A more in-depth article is here.

FunFact: Michael Crichton's 2002 novel "Prey" featured such devices: he called a swarm of them "smart dust."


Coming soon to your neighborhood.

Who needs satellites and helicopters and drones when you can get this close up and personal?

Be afraid.

Be very afraid.

September 28, 2021 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


I can't believe that I missed this one. I heard about them on "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe" podcast Sunday. It was described, so I didn't get to see it.

Posted by: Greg Perkins | Sep 29, 2021 7:21:08 AM

Spy... battery dies = trash... self destructs (dissolve naturally and harmlessly)... the end.

Chips, conductors, sensors, not to mention Batteries that "dissolve naturally and harmlessly", interesting. Why don't they make hearing aid batteries to "dissolve naturally and harmlessly"? They are a big and getting bigger problem.
Hmm, probably then cost $10 each or more.

Posted by: xoxoxoBruce | Sep 28, 2021 3:23:18 PM

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