These could be the stuff of nightmares — if they weren’t so damn cute.
Scientists at the University of Washington have developed adorable little electronic “microfliers,” the size of a postage stamp, that fold like origami paper in midair to change their flight pattern.
The origami micros weigh less than a small nail and come fully equipped with all the hottest options: a programmable microcontroller, a Bluetooth radio, a solar power-harvesting circuit, a pressure sensor to estimate altitude and a temperature sensor.
After being dropped from a drone or other high-altitude object, the microfliers depend on the wind to disperse. When the origami base is fully open, the wind catches them and moves them like an autumn leaf.
In fact, the inspiration for the design came from studying how leaves fall through the air, according to the Wednesday report in Science Robotics.
And when the time comes for them to drop straight down, the operators send a signal to each microflier via Bluetooth, or with an onboard timer or altitude sensor.
Then the micros use their Miura-ori origami fold — a specific type of origami folding pattern — to snap into a smaller, tighter size, which helps them plunge downward.
“We combine the Miura-ori fold, which is inspired by geometric patterns found in leaves, with power harvesting and tiny actuators to allow our fliers to mimic the flight of different leaf types in mid-air,” Vikram Iyer, assistant professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at UW, said in a statement.
“In its unfolded flat state, our origami structure tumbles chaotically in the wind, similar to an elm leaf. But switching to the folded state changes the airflow around it and enables a stable descent, similarly to how a maple leaf falls,” Iyer said. “This highly energy-efficient method allows us to have battery-free control over microflier descent, which was not possible before.”
On their own, the micros can travel the length of a football field when dropped from 40 meters (about 131 feet) in a light breeze.
Depending on whom you ask, the microfliers can be used to gather environmental data like temperature, humidity and other conditions — or they can be used by evil government overlords to spy on innocent civilians in a brutal, dystopian surveillance state.
Either way, it’s a clever design application for an interesting device: “Using origami opens up a new design space for microfliers,” said Iyer.