Bionic Micro-Planes Could Measure Air Quality in the Future

Ethan Hawley

From the parachute on a dandelion to the helicopter seeds on a maple tree - plants adopt numerous concepts to utilize the wind to spread their seeds over as large an area as possible. An international research group has now examined these flight tricks of nature in detail and partially recreated them.

The team led by John A. Rogers from Northwestern University in Evanston developed many passive micro-planes (without a propulsion system) of different sizes - from less than a millimeter to a few centimeters in diameter. These bionic micro-planes can travel long distances with three tiny wings when falling from a great height and measure the air quality with electronic sensors.

In particular, the three-winged seeds of a climbing plant from the Malpighia family inspired the researchers to create a micro-flyer that drifted particularly well in the wind. First, using production methods used in the chip industry, they made a three-leaf, wafer-thin film. Next, they placed this on a three-winged rubber layer that they had stretched a little beforehand. When the rubber contracted again, the applied film was curved, and a three-dimensional structure that was particularly suitable for air travel was created.

“We believe that we can even surpass the properties of the natural model with this,” says Rogers. Because for the longest possible flight, the falling speed of the small propeller plane should be as low as possible. At just 28 centimeters per second, their micro-aircraft fell three to four times more slowly than the natural flying seeds.

The researchers were also able to place a transistor and a diode in the middle of the prototype, which is only around half a millimeter in size. About four centimeters in diameter, a larger prototype even carried electronic sensors, microcontrollers, a radio module, and a tiny power source.

Such micro-planes manufactured cheaply and in large quantities can be released from high-rise buildings, balloons, or aircraft at high altitudes and distributed over a wide area by the wind. This would enable detailed measurements of air quality, for example.

However, it would be challenging and expensive to collect these sensors again after being used once. Therefore, Rogers is already working on micro-planes that consist exclusively of biodegradable materials and self-decomposing electronics.

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Ethan Hawley is a freelance writer who can condense complicated information into easily digestible articles for consumers and busy executives.

Miami, FL
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