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Researchers successfully build the smallest ever flying microchip

The flying electronic device was in part inspired by the propeller-like seeds of maple trees.

(CN) — Engineers on Wednesday unveiled perhaps one of the next great breakthroughs in human innovation — the smallest ever flying microchip, no bigger than a grain of sand.

Ever since humans developed the first functional integrated circuits — commonly referred to as microchips — roughly 80 years ago, we have been on a seemingly neverending quest to improve on their design and functionality to the greatest technical degree imaginable.

While experts around the world have made dozens of advancements in microchip technology that have catapulted them to being essential components of daily life and modern marvels alike, researchers have now added what may be their next great feature: flight on a microscopic scale.

In a study released Wednesday in the journal Nature, engineers from Northwestern University reveal they have designed a microchip around the size of a single grain of sand that is not only capable of stabilized flight but now serves as the smallest flying structure to ever be constructed.

Perhaps one of the most startling components of the new device, known as microfliers, is that despite their flight capabilities, the microchips do not actually contain a motor or engine. Instead, researchers studied the natural flight abilities of maple tree seed and other seed types distributed by natural airflow to create a microchip that flies by catching the wind and spinning through the air in a controlled decent.

Using natural aerodynamics to create a flying microchip that doesn’t require a motor means the invention can be outfitted with highly microscopic tech, such as communication antennas and even data storage that could make their creation perfectly tailored for monitoring air pollution and airborne disease.

Northwestern's John A. Rogers, who led the device’s development, said learning from billions of years of natural seed evolution and applying those lessons to microchip technology had a pivotal role in making this breakthrough a reality.

“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,” Rogers said. “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.”

When looking to see how the flying microchips can be applied in the practical world, researchers believe there could be a wide range of potential applications. They are particularly optimistic that the devices could be used by dropping them in bulk from an airplane or high building to help gauge environmental remediation efforts following some kind of environmental crisis, such as chemical spills.

Because the flying microdevices do not have a motor and will inevitably hit the ground after their controlled fall, the devices presented researchers with a problem: what to do with the electronic litter left behind? Thankfully, they have already found a solution.

Rogers and his lab had previously created electronic materials capable of dissolving in water after their use has run its course, and researchers say they were able to use the same techniques to create microchips that will naturally degrade in groundwater over time.

Armed with these advantages and a design that lends itself to customization to fit more specific needs, experts are confident that their microfliers are so advanced they might have just created a contraption that would impress even mother nature herself.

“We think that we beat nature,” Rogers said. “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.”

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