Today more than ever, engineers and scientists are inspired by nature in the development of new technologies. There biomimetics it goes fast, and this newly developed aircraft is no exception: the smallest ever.
Inspired by the way trees like maples disperse their seeds, the researchers developed a range of tiny flying microchips. They are little larger than a grain of sand. This 'microflier' aircraft catches the wind and rotates like a helicopter towards the ground.
The era of microplanes
The micro-planes, designed by a Northwestern University team, can be equipped with ultra-miniature technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication, and even built-in memory for data storage.
"Our goal was to build an aircraft with small-scale electronic systems. These capabilities allow us to ship highly functional miniature electronic devices around to monitor the environment, ensure safety or control disease," he says. John A. Rogers, who led the development of the new device.
The engineering team wanted to design an aircraft that would stay in the air as long as possible, to maximize the collection of relevant data. When the microplane is launched, its wings interact with the air to create a slow and stable rotational motion.
"We beat nature"
We think we have beaten nature. At least in the strict sense that we have been able to build structures that fall with more stable trajectories and slower terminal speeds than the equivalent seeds that would be seen from plants or trees. We have also been able to build these helicopter flight structures that are much smaller in size than those found in nature.John A. Rogers, Northwestern University
Rogers believes these devices could potentially be sky-launched en masse and dispersed to monitor environmental remediation efforts after an oil spill or to monitor air pollution levels at different altitudes.
A micro aircraft to be launched in swarms to monitor the environment. But then it pollutes itself. Or not?
The irony of potentially creating a new environmental pollutant while trying to mitigate the effects of another has not escaped Rogers and his team. If you can launch this craft, and it can touch the ground softly but can't return to base, it actually pollutes the environment itself. In the paper describing their work, the authors report these concerns:
Efficient methods for recovery and disposal must be carefully considered. A solution that bypasses these problems exploits devices built with materials that naturally reabsorb into the environment through a chemical reaction and / or physical disintegration to benign end products.
Fortunately, Rogers' lab develops transient electronic components that are capable of dissolving in water after they are no longer useful. Using similar materials, he and his team aim to build micro aircraft that could degrade and disappear over time in groundwater.
Work on it, guys. A version of micro vElly that biodegrades could be the solution.