First Flying Microchip Takes Flight- Smallest-Ever Human-Made Flying Structure

First Flying Microchip, Image/Northwestern University

First Flying Microchip, Image/Northwestern University

Developed by Northwestern University engineers, the winged microchip is the smallest-ever human-made flying structure that could be dropped from a plane or building:

About the size of a grain of sand, the new flying microchip (or “microflier”) does not have a motor or engine. Instead, it catches flight on the wind — much like a maple tree’s propeller seed — and spins like a helicopter through the air toward the ground.

By observing and studying the dynamics of biological seeds as they travel through the air, engineers fine-tuned the flying microchip:

By studying maple trees and other types of wind-dispersed seeds, the engineers optimized the microflier’s aerodynamics to ensure that it — when dropped at a high elevation — falls at a slow velocity in a controlled manner. This behavior stabilizes its flight, ensures dispersal over a broad area and increases the amount of time it interacts with the air, making it ideal for monitoring air pollution and airborne disease.

First Flying Microchip micro size, Image/Northwestern University

First Flying Microchip micro size, Image/Northwestern University

The Winged Microchip consists of two parts,

millimeter-sized electronic functional components and their wings. As the microflier falls through the air, its wings interact with the air to create a slow, stable rotational motion. The weight of the electronics is distributed low in the center of the microflier to prevent it from losing control and chaotically tumbling to the ground.

The Flying Microchip’s potential for data gathering is enormous as stated by John A. Rogers, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern University:

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,” said Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, who led the device’s development.

Theoretically, the Flying Microchip with a large number of miniaturized sensors can be distributed over large areas forming a wireless network.

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The Flying Microchip’s structure contains elements to monitor and measure air conditions:

In demonstrated examples, Rogers’ team included sensors, a power source that can harvest ambient energy, memory storage and an antenna that can wirelessly transfer data to a smart phone, tablet or computer.

The engineers have used the device for to detect particulates in the air. The device has also incorporated pH sensors that could be used to monitor water quality and photodetectors to measure sun exposure at different wavelengths. 

The sheer number of potential Flying Microchips when data collecting is completed can seem daunting to many. Biodegradability was a issue addressed when developing the Flying Microchip: 

We fabricate such physically transient electronics systems using degradable polymers, compostable conductors and dissolvable integrated circuit chips that naturally vanish into environmentally benign end products when exposed to water,” Rogers said. “We recognize that recovery of large collections of microfliers might be difficult. To address this concern, these environmentally resorbable versions dissolve naturally and harmlessly.