Boffs make flying robots the size of grains of sand for disease control

Most people have seen a whirling 'propeller seed' spin as it falls slowly from a tree. It's nature's way of ensuring that seeds can be spread out easily over long distances.

But scientists have now taken this concept and used it to create tiny flying micro-robots which could one day be used for "population surveillance".

Instead of being powered by an engine, the devices are modelled on 'propeller seeds'—those winged seeds that spin as they fall to the ground. These 'microfliers' catch the wind and spin like helicopters through the air as they fall gently towards the ground below.

The idea is that thousands of them could be dropped across a large area from a plane and collect data on things like air pollution and disease using tiny sensors.

This would help keep people safe after, say, a chemical spill or a major pollution incident, by enabling researchers to predict the impact on local populations.

"Over the course of billions of years, nature has designed seeds with very sophisticated aerodynamics," said John A. Rogers, who led the research team behind the project at Northwestern University.

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"We borrowed those design concepts, adapted them and applied them to electronic circuit platforms."

He added: "We think that we beat nature."

If you think it sounds like a really good way of chucking yet more litter all over the ground, you'd be right, but the team behind it will build the microfliers using 'dissolvable' materials, so that they vanish without a trace into the earth after being dropped.

While these specific microfliers are being designed largely for scientific purposes, they represent a leap forward for super-small technology.

As the smallest ever man-made flying structures, the microfliers could one day be packed with tiny technology such as sensors, wireless communications, and memory.

Scientists even hope one day to develop functional 'nanobots' which could help medicine be delivered more effectively throughout the body via a tablet.

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