Airborne miniature microchips touted as breakthrough for disease and pollution monitoring

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A new microchip roughly the size of a grain of sand that has the potential to slide great distances is being touted as a breakthrough in aerial surveillance.

Collaborating scientists from institutions such as Northwestern University in the United States and Soongsil University in Korea have created what they believe to be the smallest “man-made flying structures in the world”, which can be fitted with microchips and sensors and have the ability to transmit data remotely. .

Microchips can be dropped from the sky and potentially used to monitor environmental impacts and the spread of disease.

The researchers, who published their findings today in the journal Nature, developed the miniature leaflets after studying the aerodynamics of wind-dispersed seeds from trees like maple, dandelion and jacaranda.

Using computer simulations, the team were able to determine which shape would fall the slowest and disperse the farthest while maintaining a controlled descent.

And they believe they got a result that rivals anything in nature, according to Northwestern University’s John Rogers, who led the development of the devices.

“We think we beat biology, in a way,” Professor Rogers told the newspaper.

However, he told ABC his team had an unfair advantage.

“Nature optimizes designs in a space [with many competing needs] and with severe constraints associated with growing conditions, energy expenditure, materials, etc. Said Professor Rogers.

“We are not.”

Thousands could be deployed at once

Slippery microchips have potential for use in monitoring air pollution and airborne disease.(

Provided: Northwestern University

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The micro-flyers created by scientists most closely resemble the star-shaped seed of the tristellateia vine, which has small blades that allow them to spin and scatter away from the mother plant.

Once they established and achieved the most efficient design, the micro-flyers were fitted with tiny sensors, a solar power source, and antennas.

Researchers have so far tested devices equipped with pH monitors and airborne particle sensors; however, they see the application of miniature leaflets as potentially very extensive.

Part of the benefit of developing such a small device is that it cuts costs, Professor Rogers said.

“Cost is an important consideration.

“The closest existing technology is in RFDI [Radio Frequency Identification] tags, which these days can be obtained for pennies per tag. “

Considering their very small scale and relatively low cost, the idea would be to deploy thousands of devices from the sky. at a time, to collect data on a particular area.

“Our goal was to add wing flight to small-scale electronic systems, with the idea that these capabilities would allow us to distribute highly functional miniaturized electronic devices to detect the environment for contamination monitoring, environmental monitoring. population or disease monitoring, “said Professor Rogers. noted.

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But releasing hundreds or thousands of devices could create its own environmental problems.

The team therefore also developed a technology allowing the micro-flyers to degrade after their deployment.

“We have the technology for environmentally degradable electronics,” Professor Rogers said.

“We have been developing materials, devices and fabrication drawings for over 10 years.”

Remote sensing originally developed for war

The biggest leap forward this development represents is the ability to disperse, according to Nam-Trung Nguyen, director of the Queensland Micro and Nanotechnology Center at Griffith University.

Professor Nguyen’s team has developed similar fixed devices that can be glued to the skin or implanted in the body to monitor a patient’s health.

His team sometimes works with Professor Rogers, but he was not involved in this study.

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Although the technology is much smaller today, Professor Nguyen said remote sensing was originally developed by the US military for use during the Vietnam War.

“The military was primarily interested in surveillance technology,” he said.

Of course, larger flying devices like drones can already capture video and footage, and Professor Nguyen said micro-flyers could probably also be equipped with the technology to deliver footage.

But as with any technological advancement, he said there was a need to consider the potential for misuse.

“If you look back to the ’60s and’ 70s, the United States used it in warfare to collect information. Police could use the same. [today],” he said.

Professor Rogers said the next step in their research is to give micro-flyers the capability of powered flight.

“The other thing we’re thinking about is how to add active flight capabilities,” he said.

“So not something that falls like a seed, but something that could fly away, like a house fly.”


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