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Japanese red maple keys in our own backyard. These are beautiful signs of spring.

Could Tiny Flying Computer Chips Monitor the World? They’re here!

A team at Northwestern University has developed a model based on the design of seed dispersal in nature

A Northwestern University team is developing electronic chips as small as a grain of sand, equipped with wings like those of wind-dispersed seeds. The hope is that these microfliers will monitor pollution and contamination — and surveil crowds via ultra-miniaturized equipment:

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 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.

Amanda Morris, “Winged microchip is smallest-ever human-made flying structure” at Northwestern Now (September 22, 2021)

The “bioelectronics” project is an instance of biomimetics (technology copying nature):

”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. “We were able to do that using ideas inspired by the biological world. Over the course of billions of years, nature has designed seeds with very sophisticated aerodynamics. We borrowed those design concepts, adapted them and applied them to electronic circuit platforms.”

Northwestern University, “Winged microchip is smallest-ever human-made flying structure” at ScienceDaily (September 22, 2021) The academic paper requires a subscription.
John Rogers, Northwestern University

But Rogers thinks his team has done better than that; that it has, in fact, “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. We also were able to build these helicopter flying structures at sizes much smaller than those found in nature. That’s important because device miniaturization represents the dominating development trajectory in the electronics industry, where sensors, radios, batteries and other components can be constructed in ever smaller dimensions.”

Amanda Morris, “Winged microchip is smallest-ever human-made flying structure” at Northwestern Now (September 22, 2021)

Well, the “beat nature” part is a bit overconfident. Seeds are designed to either replicate plants for thousands of generations without attention or biodegrade quietly if they don’t. The flying chips are not even powered flight. If they were, countless insects and birds have managed that for tens of millions of years. Nature was ahead of us a long time ago and still is.

Incidentally, the chips, having transmitted data, will be designed to biodegrade like seeds, so as to avoid creating electronic litter. Another good idea, adopted from nature.

It’s worth noting that the brief introduction to the video at YouTube states, “Inspired by the aerodynamics of wind-dispersed seeds, researchers developed microfliers, which could be broadly dispersed to monitor pollution and airborne disease.” But in the video itself, Rogers also lists surveillance of human populations as one of the potential uses. “Population surveillance” is one of the cited benefits in the news release from Northwestern University.

Possibly, along with helping monitor pollution, the micro flyer will turn out to be the greatest invasion of privacy since the electronic bugging device. We shall see.


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Could Tiny Flying Computer Chips Monitor the World? They’re here!