back to article Scientists took cues from helicopter seeds to invent tiny microchips that float on wind

As autumn arrives in the northern hemisphere, scientists have shown how tiny connected semiconductors can be distributed on the wind in a similar way to the seasonal spreading of airborne seeds. Researchers led by Professor John Rogers of the US's Northwestern University designed printed circuits able to manifest rotational …

  1. Cybersaber

    Just because it's biodegradable doesn't make it not pollution.

    Paper is also biodegradable, but if someone threw up a cloud of little bits of paper that landed all over my house or property, I'd still be ticked off. What about poisoning or other environmental effects? What if it poisons wildlife that eats it, or maybe it's fine, but makes them fill up on stuff that gives them no nutrition like when people feed bread to ducks?

    All in all, this seems like a bad idea where they're not really thinking of the consequences.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just because it's biodegradable doesn't make it not pollution.

      Yeah, they might have mentioned what OSHA has to say about that range of particle sizes. This is just like the tagent craze a decade ago, which lead to the companies that made them aggressively pushing on them without regard for their impacts.

      Even things that CAN degrade in the environment depend on favorable conditions to do so, and aren't necessarily going to be good for human's lungs when they either do or don't degrade in them. No one should be making more than test batches of these things without a full impact assessment and heath study.

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Scattering e-waste over the countryside.

  3. Draco

    As if e-waste wasn't a big enough problem ...

    It's one thing for e-waste to be fairly chunky stuff you can see, but when it's sand grain sized (after the "environmentally friendly" bio-degradation of the dispersal substrate) it's going to be getting into a lot of stuff - with all its attendant unforeseen consequences.

    I'm all for gathering better data and, perhaps, there are use cases for something like this, but ... you'd have to make a good case why more macro-level monitoring devices are insufficient.

    Odd that El Reg omitted, from the article, the most Orwellian use mentioned in the video (about the 1 minute mark): population surveillance.

    Aren't semiconductors supposed to have toxic chemicals in them. I know phosphorous and boron are common doping agents. I recall arsenic being another - but, maybe that's been phased out in more modern chippery. The prospect of arsenic laced grains of sand being strewn far and wide doesn't seem well thought out.

    1. swm

      Re: As if e-waste wasn't a big enough problem ...

      The amount of phosphorous, and arsenic are in parts per billion and not really detectable.

      1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

        Re: not really detectable.

        Maybe acceptable for toxins such as arsenic that don't build up in the body, but not good for those that do.

  4. ravenviz Silver badge

    This is not a good idea.

  5. Spherical Cow Silver badge

    How does the data get from the scattered tiny sensors back to the researcher?

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Well duh... obviously they just fly home and report in when they're finished with their data gathering.

      (There would be a get-my-white-coat icon here, but for some reason I don't seem to have that option on this browser. Strange...)

    2. ThatOne Silver badge

      > How does the data get from the scattered tiny sensors back to the researcher?

      What data?

      The point is playing with their cool "flying seed" tech, the "sensors to save the world" story is just a desperate attempt at finding money to build some.

    3. W.S.Gosset

      > How does the data get from the scattered tiny sensors back to the researcher?


      1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

        Re: How does the data get from the scattered tiny sensors back to the researcher?

        A straw.

        Then SNORT.

        1. You aint sin me, roit
          Big Brother

          Re: How does the data get from the scattered tiny sensors back to the researcher?


          It's how Huawei are spreading the virus and beating Bill Gates to microchipping the world's population all in one go.

  6. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Battery life?

    > the flyers ranging from the microscale, below 1mm, to the macroscale, above 1 mm

    No mention of how these things would be powered (more toxic metals). At 1mm and needing the abillty to transmit their sensor information from wherever the wind blows them back to base are we talking about hours, minutes or seconds before they become just more inert junk?

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: Battery life?

      Come on, devices that small and light wouldn't be able to do any useful work anyway, so what do they need power for?...

      Obviously in the grant paper they will have to put something cool and shiny, like for instance "blockchain". "Powered by blockchain", that sounds pretty techy, doesn't it...

  7. HandleAlreadyTaken

    Smells like cancer

    It should be fun breathing in what amounts to sharp bits of glass floating around in the air...

    1. Draco

      Re: Smells like cancer

      This may be a problem for Homo Sapiens, but it will not be for Homo Maskus - the future human.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Smells like cancer

        Homo Maskus? Hmmmm. Kinky.

  8. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    In the year 2040

    Hey, who could have guessed that inhaling nanometer wiring shed from airborne biodegradable circuits would cause lung disease?

  9. ThatOne Silver badge

    Bowl of petunias

    > seed-like devices [...] that could be used for environmental monitoring.

    Nonsense, that is the old "think of the children!" argument. The only viable use case for this technology is the military: Have helicopters disperse tons of those micro-spies all over the countryside, making you able to monitor all enemy movement day and night. And since it will happen in some faraway land full of foreigners, who cares about the pollution. On the contrary, it allows you to sell them cleanup services later on.

    Environmental monitoring doesn't require stealth dispersal of e-waste. This is yet another case of a researcher being in love with an idea and desperately trying to find some use for it.

    1. Chris G

      Re: Bowl of petunias

      " sell them cleanup services later on"

      Yeah, look at the amazing clean up of the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam, NATO bombs and mines in the former Yugoslavia and the billions of dollars worth of deliberately fucked up equipment in Afghanistan.

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: Bowl of petunias

        > look at the amazing clean up of [...]

        Remember: The key word of "selling cleanup services" is "selling", not "cleanup services"...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Bowl of petunias

          The worse you do a cleanup job the more times they have to pay to have it done, right? They may not pay you again, but they still pay someone.

          The trick is to either own a stake in multiple companies, or to sell supplies and services to the companies bidding the contracts.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: Bowl of petunias

      "and desperately trying to find some use for it."

      I think they have. Although the article didn't mention it, in the video the research mention "population surveillance.

  10. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Some hacker will find a way to...

    ...Root these devices.

    1. W.S.Gosset

      Re: Some hacker will find a way to...

      And then prune the results tree.

  11. Simian Surprise

    Did someone say microchips?

    This'll come in handy to get the microchips into anyone they can't convince to get the vaccine...

  12. Danny 2

    Gates and Soros are doing what now?

    I can see the use for identifying famous people who obviously don't merit anonymity.

    As teenagers we were gutted to learn retrospectively that our rock gods, The Pixies, drank in our Cockburn Street pubs.

    "You mean, those fat old Americans that we always ignored were The Pixies?"

    We loved them, just never knew what they looked like, the bastards escaped our adulation. A chip in their pint glass that checked fingerprints and DNA could have alerted us.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dear God...

    wait till the anti-vaxxers hear about this. Not just nanobots in the vaccine, now they'll have nanobots in the very air, too. Totally unavoidable.

    Probably a good time to buy stock in Reynolds Wrap...

  14. Brett Weaver

    Slow Glass

    Maybe it will be the real implementation of Slow Glass...

    Cameras everywhere..

    1. Will Godfrey Silver badge

      Re: Slow Glass

      Ha! That was EXACTLY my first thought.

      Have one of these as well as an upvote :)

      P.S. I still have a copy of the book.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'Microfliers' could carry sensors to monitor air pollution and more

    like microbombs aka another 'ultimate battlefield superiority' wet dream.

  16. andy gibson


    In "Twister"

    1. Cuddles

      Re: Dorothy?

      Beat me to it. It's essentially the plot of Twister crossed with the plot of Deus Ex Invisible War. For those who successfully blanked out the fact that Deus Ex had a sequel, that's the one where large parts of the Earth have been rendered uninhabitable by swarms of tiny computers floating around in the air, which were originally intended to do all kinds of useful monitoring of agriculture, diseases and other areas "where large-scale, distributed arrays of miniature sensors would be useful".

      1. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

        Re: Dorothy?

        I thought Twister was a very long truck commercial. I kept waiting for the real movie after the end.

  17. not.known@this.address


    Anyone else remember the slightly dodgy post-apocalyptic "drama" about the world without electricity? Well, obviously by "the world" I do mean it was all about America, the US in particular - who it turned out had caused the whole sorry mess in the first place. And then had a chance to fix it but decided they liked nobody ever being able to generate electricity again...

    Hmm, using pseudoscience and moral blackmail to force the world back to the Stone Age - now that I think about it, I wonder if the show was the inspiration for Extinction Rebellion ??

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