Look at this tiny winged microchip the size of a grain of sand

Ready or not, flying microchips are here, but unlike motorized drones, these flying computers are light enough to be carried by the winds.

The technology, developed by engineers at Northwestern University, Illinois, took maple tree seeds as the source of inspiration for the project. It resulted in a tiny computer that catches the wind to make a soft landing thanks to its helicopter-like design. It calls the devices a ‘microflier’.

“By studying maple trees and other types of wind-dispersed seeds, the engineers optimized the microflier’s aerodynamics to ensure that it — when dropped at a high elevation — falls at a slow velocity in a controlled manner”, Northwestern University said in a statement.

“This behavior stabilizes its flight, ensures dispersal over a broad area and increases the amount of time it interacts with the air, making it ideal for monitoring air pollution and airborne disease.”

The small scale of the electronic devices makes them amenable to numerous tasks — from environmental monitoring and surveillance to disease management.

In a paper published in the September 23 edition of Nature, the researchers detail how they “examined passive structures designed for a controlled, unpowered flight across natural environments or city settings.”

The university says the passive flight modules can be packed with sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory.

“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 or disease tracking,” said John Rogers, an electronics engineer who led the device’s development.

He borrowed the aerodynamic design of seeds and applied them to electronic circuits, building on earlier work on how light tree seeds, such as dandelion seeds, are carried by the wind.

Maple tree seeds are about an inch in size and have butterfly-like wings that fall with a propellor action that uses the wind to create a soft landing.

“These biological structures are designed to fall slowly, and in a controlled manner, so they can interact with wind patterns for the longest possible period of time. This feature maximizes lateral distribution via purely passive, airborne mechanisms,” he said.

The group used computational modelling of various seeds to create a design that mimics the seeds that land most gently.

“Device miniaturization represents the dominating development trajectory in the electronics industry, where sensors, radios, batteries and other components can be constructed in ever smaller dimensions,” Rogers said.

The team imagines that large numbers of devices could be dropped from a plane or building and broadly dispersed to monitor environmental remediation efforts after a chemical spill or track air pollution levels at various altitudes.

“Most monitoring technologies involve bulk instrumentation designed to collect data locally at a small number of locations across a spatial area of interest,” Rogers says.

“We envision a large multiplicity of miniaturized sensors that can be distributed at a high spatial density over large areas to form a wireless network.”

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