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Researchers create flying microchips

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-10-19 12:47

A flying microchip, roughly the size of a grain of sand, has been created by researchers at Northwestern University who suggest it could be used to monitor population, air pollution and airborne diseases.

The flying microchips — officially called "electronic microfliers''— aren't powered by an internal engine. Instead, they use wind to fall through the air toward the ground.

John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and neurological surgery at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, led the development of the microfliers.

Rogers' research was supported by a global team of scientists at the Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics at Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, Tsinghua University in China, Soongsil University in South Korea and the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China.

Rogers' research team wrote in the journal Nature in September: "Large distributed collections of miniaturized, wireless electronic devices may form the basis of future systems for environmental monitoring, population surveillance, disease management, and other applications that demand coverage over expansive spatial scales."

Rogers said that the team studied the behavior of wind-dispersed seeds falling from trees to draw inspiration for the design of the microflier during development and published their results in a study called "Three-dimensional electronic microfliers inspired by wind-dispersed seeds".

Team member Yonggang Huang created a computer model that calculated the best design to enable the microfliers to fall slowly but disperse widely.

Researchers said that as the microflier falls through the air, it can be used to monitor the population, air pollution and airborne diseases. They found that the microfliers are so lightweight that they would work more efficiently than current surveillance equipment like drones.

The microfliers also have the capability of being loaded with miniaturized technology like sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory to store data and be transmitted back to a computer or smartphone.

But Joe Queenan, an author, argues in The Wall Street Journal that the use of the microchips could be seized upon by conspiracy theorists who believe that they will be used by government agencies to spy on citizens.

"Let's face it: Why wouldn't the FBI, the IRS and the Treasury Department use a tool as useful as this to track down tax cheats and gangsters? How could they resist?" Queenan wrote.

"Once flying microchips become dirt cheap, things would go much further. Should they fall into the wrong hands — as they inevitably will — they could be used to spy on business meetings, military strategizing sessions, and even greenlighting discussions at Hollywood studios."

Jonathan Berman, a scientist and science educator who wrote a book called Anti-vaxxers, How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement believes that there are several reasons why conspiracy theories about technology, science, microchips and COVID-19 flourish online.

"Developing conspiracy theories helps people to regain a sense of control of their environment," Berman told China Daily. "They feel that they can find information that no one else has."

Rogers said that his 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".

He said that two intricate details make the microflier work. The first is a millimeter-sized electronic functional component. The electronics are located low in the center of the microflier to prevent it from losing control. The second part are the wings which help them gracefully fall through the air as it rotates.

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