Building da Vinci Machines at the Microscopic Scale - University of Utah MEMS Projects

Austin Welborn, Dr. Ian Harvey and Brian Baker. Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Utah
Corresponding author:


Leonardo da Vinci is known across the world for his creative genius. Among his innovative technical drawings we find designs of mechanical wings, military artillery, anatomical drawings, and much more. Many of today's technologies are based on da Vinci's original concepts because they were so advanced at the time, and even established many fundamentals of machine engineering. People throughout history have honored his designs by building modern replicas based on his technical drawings. What better way to honor da Vinci than by incorporating some of his technical drawings into today's manufacturing technology? This paper describes another way of building da Vinci machines, but with the additional irony of doing so in the microscopic scale. Our MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System) da Vinci chip boasts three familiar designs, imitating da Vinci's mechanical concepts: mechanical lion, the Vitruvian man, and a winged machine which is a combination of two of da Vinci's visions for flying devices. In additional to the da Vinci chip, we have included several different mechanisms that actuate each of the designs. Those mechanisms include electrostatics, thermal actuators, and coulombic repulsion.


Leonardo da Vinci could have benefited from modern materials and manufacturing techniques. Many of his machine visions (especially the flying ones) were doomed from the outset because of material strength-to-density ratios and gravitational dominance. We would like to think that da Vinci would approve of the efforts to bring his designs into the microscale, where the surface to volume ratio effects virtually eliminate gravitational effects, in favor of surface area effects, such as the surface charge density effect we use to advantage in bringing his microscale machines spontaneously to life.

When attempting to create some of Leonardo da Vinci's mechanical designs and bringing in some of his iconic drawings into MEMS, one has to understand how mechanical devices work. With this chip, we expected that the designs needed to remain identical to da Vinci's designs but still incorporate structures and components related to MEMS. In doing so, our chip was designed with three different major components/phenomena. These include thermal actuators, the use of coulombic repulsion between MEMS structures, and electrostatics.

The three designs include da Vinci's mechanical lion, the Vitruvian man, and a combination of the flying mechanism and flapping wings.

Three MEMS Designs

The mechanical lion (figure 1), the Vitruvian man (figure 2), and a combination of the flying mechanism (figure 3) and flapping wings (figure 4) were used to create three very distinctive MEMS designs, whose artistry and complexity is enabled by the most advanced surface micromachining process in the world, the SUMMiT™ architecture from Sandia National Labs.

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Figure 4

The MEMS mechanical lion (figure 5) uses a special 4-bar linkage made out of a crank rocker and a crank slider, which is the same approach that da Vinci used in his original mechanical lion. This allows for the lion to walk/run with all 4 legs simultaneously. The MEMS Vitruvian man (figure 6) uses 4 hot-cold thermal actuators in series to allow the Vitruvian man to perform jumping jacks. The MEMS flying machine (figure 7) uses the flapping wings (figure 4) and the body frame of the flying mechanism (figure 3) in combination. Charge pumping is used to raise the wings from the surface of the chip spontaneously when imaged by SEM. There is also a ground bridge directly above the beams connected to the wings to allow the wings to discharge when touching the bridge. This then allows the wings to fall back down to the chip and build up the coulombic repulsion once again to create a "flapping" motion. With all three designs, one can see how combining both da Vinci's designs in the microscale create something that hasn't been seen before. We offer this da Vinci tribute in the hopes that it will inspire yet further generations of engineers.

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