NEW YORK – It’s neither a bird nor a plane, but a winged microchip as small as a grain of sand that can be carried by the wind as it monitors such things as pollution levels or the spread of airborne diseases.

The tiny microfliers, whose development by engineers at Northwestern University was detailed in an article published by Nature this week, are being billed as the smallest-ever human-made flying structures.

The devices don’t have a motor; engineers were instead inspired by the maple tree’s free-falling propeller seeds — technically known as samara fruit. The engineers optimized the aerodynamics of the microfliers so that “as these structures fall through the air, the interaction between the air and those wings cause a rotational motion that creates a very stable, slow-falling velocity,” said John A. Rogers, who led the development of the devices.

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