Winged microchips are the smallest man-made flight structure of all time

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Scientists have developed winged microchips that are smaller than an ant’s head and are believed to be the smallest flight structure ever made by man.

Not only are these tiny structures a feat of engineering, but the researchers behind the project at Northwestern University also hope that one day they could be used to monitor air pollution and the presence of airborne diseases. In a distinct cyberpunk variant, they could possibly also be used to monitor and collect data on the population.

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

The micro devices slide through the air, using designs inspired by airborne seeds that disperse in the wind. Using various wind tunnel experiments and simulations, the researchers tested a large number of different shapes. These included dandelion-inspired parachute shapes, helicopter shapes such as the boxwood (Acer negundo) and weirdos like those of the empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa).

A close-up of the optimal design. Photo credit: Northwestern University

This eventually resulted in a three-wing structure, similar to the tristellateia Seed that researchers claim can glide even more effectively than airborne seeds.

“We believe we are beating nature,” said Professor John A. Roger, lead study author and pioneering bioelectronics expert at Northwestern University, in a opinion. “At least in the narrower sense that we were able to build structures that fall with more stable trajectories and slower top speeds than comparable seeds that you would see from plants or trees.”

“In addition, we were able to build these helicopter flight structures much smaller than in nature smaller dimensions.”

To avoid the problem of environmental pollution, the micro devices are made of degradable polymers and will naturally dissolve after landing.

To showcase the design, the team fitted a device to detect particles in the air. In another example, they incorporated pH sensors that could be used to monitor water quality and photodetectors to measure solar radiation at different wavelengths. They also demonstrated that it can slide with sensors, a power source that can absorb ambient energy, a memory, and an antenna that can wirelessly transmit data to computers.

The possibilities for this type of design are endless, say the researchers. The most likely incarnation of this technology would be for the micro devices to be used to monitor contamination in the air, be it pollution or airborne diseases. There is also the possibility that they could be used as a surveillance tool, like a dust-sized CCTV cloud.

“Most surveillance technologies are mass-market instruments designed to collect data locally from a small number of locations in a spatial area of ​​interest,” said Rogers. “We envision a large number of miniaturized sensors that can be distributed in high spatial density over large areas in order to form a wireless network.”


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