Blowin' in the wind

How falling seeds inspired the world's smallest flying robot

Northwestern University
Northwestern University

At first glance, these might look like tiny shreds of tinfoil on a piece of glass.

F. Frankel

But look closer, and you’ll see the specks are actually intricate structures — tiny robots, called microfliers.

Though they have no motor or engine, the microfliers can soar on the wind like seeds.

Researchers writing in a September 22 report in the journal Nature say these devices are the smallest man-made structures capable of flight.

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The devices range in size, with the smallest about the size of a grain of sand. For a sense of scale, here’s a microflier next to a common ant.

Northwestern University

Northwestern University

Two main parts make up a microflier: millimeter-sized electronic components (like sensors and circuits), and wings made of polymer.

The design was inspired by “helicopter seeds,” which fall from maple trees.

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“These biological structures are designed to fall slowly and in a controlled manner, so they can interact with wind patterns for the longest-possible period of time.”

John A. Rogers, study coauthor

robert reader/Moment/Getty Images

But what can you do with a robot this small?

The researchers say they could be deployed to monitor air pollution, airborne diseases, and water quality.

Northwestern University

Northwestern University

They even created a version that’s water-soluble, a type of electronics design that researchers of the Nature paper had done previous work on.

Similar micro-robotics projects from the past few years could help with drug delivery and pollution cleanup.

And while they may tackle different problems, many miniature robots have something in common: they often take inspiration from nature.