Large, distributed collections of miniaturized, wireless electronic devices1,2 may form the basis of future systems for environmental monitoring3, population surveillance4, disease management5 and other applications that demand coverage over expansive spatial scales. Aerial schemes to distribute the components for such networks are required, and—inspired by wind-dispersed seeds6—we examined passive structures designed for controlled, unpowered flight across natural environments or city settings. Techniques in mechanically guided assembly of three-dimensional (3D) mesostructures7–9 provide access to miniature, 3D fliers optimized for such purposes, in processes that align with the most sophisticated production techniques for electronic, optoelectronic, microfluidic and microelectromechanical technologies. Here we demonstrate a range of 3D macro-, meso- and microscale fliers produced in this manner, including those that incorporate active electronic and colorimetric payloads. Analytical, computational and experimental studies of the aerodynamics of high-performance structures of this type establish a set of fundamental considerations in bio-inspired design, with a focus on 3D fliers that exhibit controlled rotational kinematics and low terminal velocities. An approach that represents these complex 3D structures as discrete numbers of blades captures the essential physics in simple, analytical scaling forms, validated by computational and experimental results. Battery-free, wireless devices and colorimetric sensors for environmental measurements provide simple examples of a wide spectrum of applications of these unusual concepts.
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