Mankind has come a long way from the Wright brother’s first flight. SpaceX recently launched the first non-astronaut flight into orbit and now we have flying microchips that are smaller than the tip of a pencil.
Engineers at Northwestern University recently unveiled tiny winged microchips that are, as detailed by an article in Nature, not much larger than a grain of sand. The word “tiny” seems perfectly appropriate as one could easily think the smallest human-made flying structure is nothing more than a shiny spec of dirt. The three-dimensional microfliers have no motor, but instead, use “optimized aerodynamics” to glide through the air. The engineers were inspired by the propeller-like seeds of a maple tree.
“Over the course of billions of years, nature has designed seeds with very sophisticated aerodynamics. We borrowed those design concepts, adapted them, and applied them to electronic circuit platforms,” John A. Rogers, who led the development of the devices, told Northwestern News. As the devices fall through the air, their wings would capture air and create a rotation that keeps them afloat longer — just like the twirling maple seeds that you’ve undoubtedly seen scattered on the sidewalk in the fall. “That allows these structures to interact for extended periods with ambient wind that really enhances the dispersal process.”
So why create a flying microchip that is almost invisible to the naked eye because it’s so small? Why to work as tiny tracking devices of course! The microchips on the small metal microfliers could potentially be used to track pollution levels, the spread of airborne illness, or population surveillance.
According to Nature, the battery-free, wireless fliers would function “just as plants use seeds and passive mechanisms for dispersal of genetic material to propagate the species” and the chips would collect data. The scientists are still very much in a testing mode, but large “swarms” of the microfliers would need to be dispersed through trial-and-error experiments. Rogers’ team would like to deploy the devices from a plane or building, allowing them to be broadly dispersed and monitor various environments for whatever data the group is searching for.
“Most monitoring technologies involve bulk instrumentation designed to collect data locally at a small number of locations across a spatial area of interest,” Rogers explained. “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.”
While the seeds have a relatively short flight, the team’s microfliers stay in the air considerably longer. “We think that we beat nature,” Rogers said. “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.”
As cool — or perhaps unsettling — as thousands of tiny microchipped “seeds” whirling around in the breeze is, what about all that litter once they land? Well, according to Rogers, the devices have been developed to eventually dissolve in water over time. “We recognize that recovery of large collections of microfliers might be difficult. To address this concern, these environmentally resorbable versions dissolve naturally and harmlessly.”
Now as for the possibility of one of these winged microchips finding its way into a person’s eye while they’re out for a morning stroll? It seems that conundrum has yet to have a solution.
Photos via Northwestern University and YouTube