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These winged microchips are the smallest “computers” ever made by a human: they will be used to monitor the air

With the the size of just a grain of rice or sometimes less, these microchips are designed to fly and be carried by the wind like some flying seeds do in nature. With thousands of them launched in an area, they are able to communicate with each other while flying and monitor air condition.


These small computers inspired by nature they are part of research published in Nature, where the team behind them was looking for a way to better track the spread of elements in the air. Like many other times, what better way than to imitate nature. Of course, miniaturizing everything possible, something that science has done other times with chips.

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Imitating the millions of years of nature’s work

Some plants have developed the most sophisticated systems through millions of years of evolution to pass on their genes. Flying seeds allow some plants to spread through the ground and grow in different places only with the help of air currents. So why not take advantage of this idea?

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Although there are many designs in nature to do this (parachutes, propellers, gliders …), the researchers focused on some seeds scattered by maples with a rotating style. After studying the aerodynamics of these seeds, they created their own with three propellers and the ability to rotate to move.

Subsequently reduced the object to a tiny scale to be just a grain of rice or sometimes less in size. Of course, containing inside the microchip, a source of energy to transmit information and sensors to monitor the environment. They can further reduce and keep all the components, but they indicated that there is a threshold beyond which flow dynamics no longer works. That is, the air is no longer moving the object because it is not resisting enough and it simply plummets like a ball.

Launched in swarms of hundreds and thousands of them, these little flying robots can monitor pollution or track how pathogens spread through the air, among other things. By communicating wirelessly between them, the information from all of them passes from one to another until it reaches a main node where it is collected by the researchers.

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And what happens to them afterwards? They are tiny and cannot really be controlled, but are left out in the open to drafts. Therefore, sooner or later they end up getting lost or falling to the ground. While this may seem like a pollution problem, scientists say that can be built with biodegradable materials so that they do not have an impact on the environment once its useful life is over. We have seen this idea in other research, such as the biodegradable pacemaker.

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At the moment the researchers they’re going to try more flying seed inspired designs. The idea is to develop new designs adapted to more specific functions and therefore with better capabilities. The team of researchers behind the idea see plausible a future where hundreds of microchips like these are launched into the air to detect in advance pathogens in the area or other characteristics of the air. And it’s not that far-fetched.

More information | Nature and Northwestern University