Quirks & Quarks

Tiny flying microchips inspired by maple seeds could help monitor the environment

Devices can be as small as a grain of sand, with tiny wings allowing passive flight

Devices can be as small as a grain of sand, with tiny wings allowing passive flight

A microchip with wings could be released from a drone or plane and relay information about the environment (Northwestern University)

Researchers have developed a microchip with wings that is the smallest ever man-made flying object. They hope that devices like it could be developed to monitor things like air pollution and airborne diseases. 

Developer John Rogers has had a longstanding interest in miniature electronics, including microchips designed to monitor activity on and in the human body.

Rogers, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Chicago and a pioneer in this field, took inspiration from nature and added wings to microchips to create a platform that can do sensing of its environment as it flies through the air.

Look carefully to find a tiny winged microchip on the middle finger (Northwestern University)

Fly like maple seeds 

The inspiration came from seeds that are dispersed by the wind, like the maple "keys" that flutter, helicopter-like, from their trees. Like seeds, the microchip flyers are unpowered — they have no on-board propulsion.

Rogers imagines that winged microchips could be released from airplanes or drones in large numbers — hundreds or even thousands — and could sample the air column as they descend.

He imagines that once they land, they could still be useful in gathering information about soil or groundwater.

The microchips could be made out of biodegradable material so that there would not be an electronic waste contamination problem.

Rogers is optimistic that this technology will emerge from the lab and put into practical use soon.

Produced and written by Mark Crawley

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