Winged microchip borrows aerodynamic properties of biological seeds

September 27, 2021 // By Rich Pell
Winged microchip borrows aerodynamic properties of biological seeds
Engineers at Northwestern University say they have added flight capability to tiny electronic microchips without using a motor or engine.

About the size of a grain of sand, the new flying microchip - or “microflier” - catches flight on the wind, much like a maple tree’s propeller seed, and spins like a helicopter through the air toward the ground. In fact it was by studying maple trees and other types of wind-dispersed seeds that the engineers optimized the microflier’s aerodynamics to ensure that when dropped from a high elevation it falls at a slow velocity in a controlled manner.

Such 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, say the researchers. microfliers also can be packed with ultra-miniaturized technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory to store data.

The microfliers also can be packed with ultra-miniaturized technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication, and embedded memory to store data.

“Our goal was to add winged flight to small-scale electronic systems," says Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, who led the device’s development, "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. 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.”

“Evolution was likely the driving force for the sophisticated aerodynamic properties exhibited by many classes of seeds,” says Rogers. “These biological structures are designed to fall slowly and in a controlled manner, so they can interact with wind patterns for the longest-possible period of time. This feature maximizes lateral distribution via purely passive, airborne mechanisms.”

To design the microfliers, the researchers studied the aerodynamics of a number of plants’ seeds,


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