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Scientists build the 'smallest-ever human-made flying structure'

They're just the size of a grain of sand, but the microfliers can carry data-collecting sensors.

A microflier with a ladybug for scale.
Northwestern University

It's raining microchips, hallelujah. One day, they could float gently through the air while gathering environmental data, land on the ground and then dissolve when their work is done. That's the future a team of engineers sees for what they're calling "microfliers," miniscule winged microchips with designs inspired by nature.

Northwestern University described the microfliers as "the smallest-ever human-made flying structures" in a statement on Wednesday. The chips are about the size of a sand grain and they travel by wind, much like a spinning maple tree seed. 

"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 John Rogers, co-author of a paper on the microfliers published in the journal Nature this week.  

A Northwestern video on the microchips emphasizes just how tiny they are, shows how they're constructed and what they look like when they're flying. 

The winged, propeller-like design of the microchips means they fall slowly and can ride the wind. That gives them lots of time to collect data on the way down. The team said they can be equipped with miniaturized sensors, antennas and even data storage. 

Nature has proven inspirational for all sorts of engineering projects in recent years, from an octopus-like tentacle grabber to cicada-style drones. The engineers developed the design for the microfliers by studying how wind-dispersed seeds perform. The tristellateia plant and its star-shaped seeds turned out to be a good model for the electronic devices.  

This microflier is kitted out with a coil antenna and UV sensors.

Northwestern University

"We think that we beat nature," Rogers said. "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."

Rogers and his team are working on microfliers made with materials that will dissolve in water, providing a nifty solution to the issue of cleaning up the electronic litter. 

Perhaps it's time for Bette Midler to revisit her hit song with a "wind beneath my microchips" rendition in honor of this new innovation.