Researchers Design Plans for Swarms of Tiny Flying Microchips, Promise Not to Use Them for Evil

Images of the designed microfliers.
(Image credit: NothWestern University)

Engineers at Northwestern University have detailed the first ever battery-less microflier design. An article published by Nature this week lays bare the research and development process of what are being billed as the smallest-ever human-made flying structures, which are planned to eventually function as "large, distributed collections of miniaturized, wireless electronic devices", or swarms, of environmental do-gooders. They're planned to be able to carry data, scan their surroundings, and provide for wireless communication as well.

Potential usages for these swarms are near-infinite: air quality monitoring (and potential interaction with weather formations), airborne disease spread control, automated seed dispersal for agriculture, non-intrusive wild-life monitoring, explosive detection solutions for law enforcement, as massive data dispersal systems...or as mass surveillance mechanisms and tools for biological warfare right out of a Bond movie. 

As time and history have shown us, while technology is often argued as being neutral by nature; human usage of it is another matter entirely. Doomsday scenarios for wonder tech are certainly easy to imagine, as Black Mirror has already done with a similar concept

But the plus side to such imaginings is that they show us exactly what we have to avoid in our interaction with technology, so we can look to its advantages instead.

The microchips' powerless design was inspired by the maple tree's free-falling propeller seeds — samara fruit. These chips don't have controllable boosters or anything of the like. Instead, the tiny electronics are moved and sustained on air currents by physics alone. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them gliders rather than microfliers, but we're not Northwestern researchers.

 "As these structures fall through the air, the interaction between the air and those wings cause a rotational motion that creates a very stable, slow-falling velocity," said John A. Rogers, one of the engineers behind the devices.

Optimizations for the microfliers were done via computer modeling, looking for the correct design that would enable them to both fall slowly and disperse widely. “The computational modeling allows a rapid design optimization of the fly structures that yields the smallest terminal velocity,” Yonggang Huang, who created the computer models, said. “This is impossible with trial-and-error experiments.”

For the actual fliers, the engineers first created a 2D, planar base, where all the electronics are contained. The electronics contents here can be customized, packed with ultra-miniaturized technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory to store data. This is particularly important for mass manufacturing capabilities: planar processes are the bread and butter of the semiconductor manufacturing industry. “This strategy of building 3D structures from 2D precursors is powerful because all existing semiconductor devices are built in planar layouts,” Rogers said. “We can thus exploit the most advanced materials and manufacturing methods used by the consumer electronics industry to make completely standard, flat, chip-like designs. Then, we just transform them into 3D flying shapes by principles that are similar to those of a pop-up book.”

Images of the designed microfliers.

The completed microflier, straight out of a pop-up book. (Image credit: NothWestern University)

The base is then bonded to "a slightly stretched rubber substrate", which when relaxed, initiates "a controlled buckling process (...) that causes the wings to “pop up” into precisely defined three-dimensional forms." The microfliers have to be released in the air; the higher this is done, the farther their dispersal potential. And the slower the microfliers fall, the farther they'll be able to disperse from the release point as well. So lengthening the flight time was one of the major goals for the engineers.

"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."

However, should this sort of technology be pushed further and enter active usage, what of all the electronic detritus? Should clouds, swarms of these microfliers just fall towards the ground to lay crushed beneath our sneakers as we run towards the Metro? Well, it so happens that Notrtwestern University has also had research done into transient electronics - electronics that are biodegradable in nature after they have finished their intended usage.

“We fabricate such physically transient electronics systems using degradable polymers, compostable conductors and dissolvable integrated circuit chips that naturally vanish into environmentally benign end products when exposed to water,” Roger said. “We recognize that recovery of large collections of microfliers might be difficult. To address this concern, these environmentally resorbable versions dissolve naturally and harmlessly.” 

Francisco Pires
Freelance News Writer

Francisco Pires is a freelance news writer for Tom's Hardware with a soft side for quantum computing.

  • punkncat
    I thought something was unusual when I smacked a skeeter earlier and smoke rose up...
  • artk2219
    Admin said:
    A team of engineers with Northwestern University have developed the smallest microflier in human history. The microfliers are built out of 2D electronics into 3D shapes, and can be deployed for environmental data collection, disease spread control, an a seemingly infinite number of other (mostly beneficial) uses.

    Researchers Design Plans for Swarms of Tiny Flying Microchips, Promise Not to Use Them for Evil : Read more

    Youre right, zero chance of that being weaponized (clandestine programs everywhere jump with joy), no one would ever poison anyone with something like that.
  • vern72
    "Twister" anyone?
  • DalaiLamar
    Nothing stops the US government from protecting the country's superpower status.
  • Darkbreeze
    And you think the problems with micro plastics is bad? Just wait until the water and soil are grossly polluted with this things. Because you pretty well know that the ones that ARE biodegradable will be the more expensive version and that businesses and entities will likely desire the cheaper version given the choice. These need to be MANDATORY as biodegradable products, or simply not allowed. And, I'm not sure how you biodegrade a chip, but I'm interested in hearing about that too.
  • Friesiansam
    How high up will they be able release these things? Is their a risk of damage to aircraft, especially if they get sucked in to jet engines?
  • Groveling_Wyrm
    A promise to not be evil? Someone will ALWAYS use it to their purpose, regarding whatever it was designed for.
  • Darkbreeze
    Seems I recall Google, Facebook and Amazon, all promising to not be evil, but every one of them either is or has been, and increasingly it looks like at some point they are going to form the Umbrella corporation, so so much for that ideology.
  • USAFRet
    Darkbreeze said:
    at some point they are going to form the Umbrella corporation
    They already did.
    Its called FAANG, Inc.
  • Darkbreeze
    Yeah, but that's just a conjoined stock package really. I'm talking about the OTHER group they are going to form, which, like the Umbrella corporation, will largely be investing in pharmaceutical, scientific and weapons research, which most these companies are already dabbling in anyhow.

    So, I don't see much probability in whoever in in charge of the research and funding for these swarms, not selling to one of these companies if they decide it's something they want. As we know, money talks, everything else walks.

    Next up, this guy, who will use the swarms of flying microchips to spread, whatever it is they decide to use. :)