Winged Microchips Are Tiniest Human-Made Flying Structure Ever

'WTF is this?' A 3D microflier (right) next to a carpenter ant (left) for scale. Image credit: Northwestern University

Scientists have developed winged microchips smaller than an ant’s head, said to be the smallest ever human-made flying structure.

Not only are these teeny structures a feat of engineering, but the researchers behind the project at Northwestern University also hope they could someday be used to monitor air pollution and the presence of airborne disease. In a markedly cyberpunk twist, they could also potentially be used for surveillance and collection of data on the population. 

The airborne chips were the subject of a new major study published in the journal Nature. 

The microdevices glide through the air using designs inspired by airborne seeds that disperse on a drift of wind. Using a variety of wind tunnel experiments and simulations, the researchers tested out a variety of different shapes. These included parachute shapes inspired by the dandelion, helicopter shapes like the box elder (Acer negundo), and spinners such as those of the empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa).

Microdevice
An up-close shot of the optimal design. Image credit: Northwestern University

This eventually led the way towards a triple-winged structure, similar to the tristellateia seed, which the researchers claim can glide even more effectively than the airborne seeds. 

“We think that we beat nature,” Professor John A Roger, lead study author and pioneering bioelectronics expert from Northwestern University, said in a statement. “At least in the narrow sense that we have been able to build structures that fall with more stable trajectories and at slower terminal velocities than equivalent seeds that you would see from plants or trees."

"We also were able to build these helicopter flying structures at sizes much smaller than those found in nature. That’s important because 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.” 

To avoid the problem of pollution, the microdevices are fashioned out of degradable polymers and will dissolve naturally after landing. 

To flaunt the design, the team outfitted one device to detect particulates in the air. In another example, they incorporated pH sensors that could be used to monitor water quality and photodetectors to measure sun exposure at different wavelengths. They also demonstrated that it can glide while armed with sensors, a power source that can absorb ambient energy, memory storage, and an antenna that can wirelessly transfer data to computers.

The possibilities for this kind of design are endless, the researchers say. The most likely incarnation of this technology would see the microdevices being used to monitor contaminations in the air, whether it’s pollution or airborne disease. There is also the possibility of them being used as a surveillance tool, like a cloud of dust-sized CCTV. 

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