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Planes to get 'smart skin' that can detect damage

Work is underway at BAE Systems to give aircraft human-like ‘skin’ so that they can ‘feel’ the world around them

A so-called 'smart skin' – made up of tens of thousands of tiny sensors – could be fitted to future aircraft so that they can 'feel' changes in speed, temperature, physical strain and movement.

Engineers at BAE Systems are working to develop the technology so that aircraft health can be monitored in real time, before any big problems occur.

The idea is that sensory information is captured by the Smart Skin, transmitted wirelessly to a remote operator and displayed on the user interface. The panel on the user interface would then change with the physical panel, enabling areas of excessive heat and/or strain to be detected and displayed.

This in turn is expected to reduce the need for regular check-ups on the ground and enable parts to be replaced more quickly and easily.

Measuring less than 1mm2, the tiny sensors would, in theory, be smaller than a grain of rice – meaning they could be fitted to existing aircraft or even be sprayed on.

Collectively, the sensors would have their own power source and when paired with the appropriate software, would be able to communicate in much the same way that human skin sends signals to the brain.

The idea for the smart skin came about when BAE senior research scientist Lydia Hyde spotted a sensor in her tumble dryer that prevented it from overheating.

She commented: "Observing how a simple sensor can be used to stop a domestic appliance overheating got me thinking about how this could be applied to my work and how we could replace bulky, expensive sensors with cheap, miniature, multi-functional ones.

"This in turn led to the idea that aircraft, or indeed cars and ships, could be covered by thousands of these motes creating a 'smart skin' that can sense the world around them and monitor their condition by detecting stress, heat or damage.

"The idea is to make platforms 'feel' using a skin of sensors in the same way humans or animals do.

By combining the outputs of thousands of sensors with big data analysis, Hyde believes the technology has the potential to be a 'game changer' for industry.

"In the future we could see more robust defence platforms that are capable of more complex missions whilst reducing the need for routine maintenance checks," she concluded. "There are also wider civilian applications for the concept which we are exploring."

Laura Hopperton

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