Engineers Build World’s Smallest Flying Device

Engineers Build World's Smallest Flying Device

( – Scientists have looked to nature for inspiration for a new generation of tiny flying sensors. Hardly larger than a grain of sand, the devices will allow researchers to monitor the climate, track pollution and even follow the progress of future pandemics.

When a team from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, needed a way to let tiny electronic sensors distribute themselves, they started off by looking at how trees spread their seeds. Team leader John A. Rogers said, “Over the course of billions of years, nature has designed seeds with very sophisticated aerodynamics.”

Rogers and a group of engineers studied those aerodynamics, then mimicked them at a smaller scale to create what they call “microfliers.” These tiny objects have three carefully angled wings that let them catch air currents, slow their rate of fall and let them spread widely from their dispersion point. In the center of the microflier, is a tiny electronics package that can include sensors, wireless antennas and even memory to store data. It’s possible to drop huge numbers of them from an aircraft, allowing them to spread over large areas and collect incredibly detailed data.

Rogers says the tiny gliders are also environmentally friendly. The polymers they’re made of – and even the printed circuits they carry – are either water-soluble or biodegradable, so once they’ve done their job the microfliers disintegrate into harmless remnants. That could also make them perfect for surveillance. The US could blanket an enemy with tiny spy devices that would disappear when their mission was accomplished. It’s an impressive concept – but also a little scary.

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