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Explained: Winged microchip is ‘smallest human-made flying structure’

A release by Northwestern University described these microflier as the “smallest-ever human-made flying structures”. The research has been published in Nature and is featured on the cover of the journal.

The microflier does not have a motor on engine, but catches flight on the wind. (Northwestern University)

Northwestern University engineers have created an electronic microchip with the capability of flight. 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.

A release by Northwestern University described these microflier as the “smallest-ever human-made flying structures”. The research has been published in Nature and is featured on the cover of the journal.

By studying maple trees and other types of wind-dispersed seeds, the engineers optimised the microflier’s aerodynamics to ensure that it — when dropped at a high elevation — falls at a slow velocity in a controlled manner. This behaviour 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. These microfliers also can be packed with ultra-miniaturised technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory to store data, the release said.

“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,” the release quoted John A Rogers, who led the device’s development, as saying.

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The team designed and built many different types of microfliers, including one with three wings, optimised to similar shapes and angles as the wings on a tristellateia seed. To pinpoint the most ideal structure, they led full-scale computational modeling of how the air flows around the device to mimic the tristellateia seed’s slow, controlled rotation. Based on this modelling, the team then built and tested structures in the lab.

Source: Northwestern University

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First published on: 24-09-2021 at 04:00:14 am
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