Scientists and engineers are known to take inspiration from nature when working on ambitious, innovative projects.
This is also the case for the world’s smallest flying structure.
The object’s design was inspired by the way trees like maples disperse seeds via stiff breezes.
The scientists developed some minuscule flying microchips, the smallest one being barely larger than a grain of sand.
The microchip (also called “microflier”) spins like a helicopter blade when airborne.
The microfliers were designed by a team from Northwestern University in Illinois, and they can be equipped with miniature technology like sensors, power sources, antennas for telecommunications, plus built-in memory for storing data.
John A. Rogers, the leader of Northwestern’s development team, said:
“Our goal was to add winged flight to small-scale electronic systems, with the idea that these capabilities would allow us to distribute highly functional, miniaturized electronic devices to sense the environment for contamination monitoring, population surveillance or disease tracking.”
The team behind the project aimed to design devices that could remain airborne for as long as possible, which would help gather more important data.
When the microflier falls through the air, its wings are dragged along the air to produce a slow yet stable rotational motion.
“We think that we beat nature. 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,” Rogers added.
He explained that the team managed to build the flying structures at dimensions significantly smaller than those available in nature.
Rogers thinks that the devices could be dropped from the sky in large amounts and dispersed to track environmental remediation efforts after events like oil spills or keep track of air pollution at various heights.
The team is aware of the irony in their project – Flying objects can become possible pollutants while aiming to mitigate the effects of pollution.
“Efficient methods for recovery and disposal must be carefully considered. One solution that bypasses these issues exploits devices constructed from materials that naturally resorb into the environment via a chemical reaction and/or physical disintegration to benign end products,” the team mentioned in the paper.