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This winged microchip, smaller than an ant, is the smallest human-made flying structure

  • September 23, 2021

Northwestern University engineers are taking a page from “Ant-Man,” creating the smallest-ever human-made flying structure in the form of a winged microchip. 

The “microflier,” announced Wednesday by Northwestern, is about the size of a grain of sand and much smaller than a regular-sized ant. It operates without a motor or engine, catching flight through wind via a propeller like a helicopter.

The microflier structures are built in a way where they can be packed with miniaturized technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and memory data. 

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“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, a biomedical engineering professor and the leader of 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.”

The engineers at Northwestern researched maple trees and wind-dispersed seeds to understand aerodynamics and create the microflier’s flying capability, configuring how to stabilize flight with enough time to be an ideal monitoring system of air pollution and airborne disease. 

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

“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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