Winged microchips are the smallest flying structure ever created by humans

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Scientists have developed winged microchips smaller than an ant’s head, believed to be the smallest flying structure ever created by humans.

Not only are these tiny structures a feat of engineering, the researchers behind the project at Northwestern University are also hoping they could one day be used to monitor air pollution and the presence of airborne disease. In a distinctly cyberpunk twist, they could also potentially be used for surveillance and population data collection.

Airborne fleas have been the subject of a major new study published in the journal Nature.

Micro devices glide through the air using designs inspired by airborne seeds that disperse on a drift of wind. Using a variety of experiments and wind tunnel simulations, the researchers tested a variety of different shapes. These included dandelion-inspired parachute shapes, helicopter shapes like the Elder box (Acer negundo), and spinners like those of the Empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa).

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

This ultimately paved the way for a three-winged structure, similar to the tristellateia seeds, which the researchers say can glide even more efficiently than airborne seeds.

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

“We were also able to build these helicopter flight structures to sizes much smaller than those found in nature. This is important because the miniaturization of devices represents the dominant development trajectory in the electronics industry, where sensors , radios, batteries and other components can be built in any size smaller.

To avoid the pollution problem, microdevices are made from degradable polymers and dissolve naturally after landing.

To display the design, the team equipped 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 sun exposure at different wavelengths. They also demonstrated that it could hover when armed with sensors, a power source capable of absorbing ambient energy, memory storage, and an antenna capable of transferring data without wire to computers.

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

“Most surveillance technologies involve bulk instrumentation designed to collect data locally at a small number of locations within a spatial area of ​​interest,” Rogers explained. “We envision a large multiplicity of miniaturized sensors that can be distributed at high spatial density over large areas, to form a wireless network. “


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