A tiny microchip the size of a grain of sand that has the ability to glide over long distances is being heralded as a breakthrough in airborne surveillance.

Scientists from Northwestern University in the U.S. and Soongsil University in Korea collaborated to develop what they believe to be the world's smallest ever "human-made flying structures," which can be equipped with microchips and sensors and can send data remotely.

The microchips can be dropped from the skies and used to track environmental impacts and disease transmission.

After analyzing the aerodynamics of wind-dispersed seeds from trees including the maple, dandelion, and jacaranda, the researcher designed the microscopic flyers, which were published today in the journal Nature.

"Over the course of billions of years, nature has produced seeds, such as those of the sycamore tree, with very sophisticated aerodynamics," Professor John Rogers of Northwestern University in Illinois said.

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

The researchers tested the microflier by adding sensors, a power source, memory, and an antenna. The scientists outfitted the gadgets with various sensors that could detect pollutants in the air, pH balance in water, or sun exposure to demonstrate the wide range of jobs that these devices may perform.

They might be dropped from planes or buildings and dispersed across a large area, according to the researchers. And, thanks to the materials used, the microfliers will degrade in the environment once they've completed their task.

Rogers' team got the inspiration for the devices from another well-known novelty: a children's pop-up book.

The team began by constructing flat, planar shapes as antecedents to flying structures. The precursors were then attached to a somewhat stretched rubber substrate. When the stretched substrate is relaxed, the wings "pop up" into precisely specified three-dimensional structures due to a controlled buckling process.

These versions are biodegradable and harmless to the environment.

Professor Rogers said that the next phase in their research would be to provide the microfliers with the ability for powered flight.

"The other thing we're thinking about is how to add active flight capabilities," he said.

"So not something that just falls like a seed, but something that could fly away, like a housefly."

The team describes the work in the video below.