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Aircraft to have ‘human-like skin

Segun Balogun

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Aircraft to be given 'human-like skin' to sense damage

Aircraft to be made from ‘human-like skin’ to enable them to feel damage and monitor their health while flying

  • BAE Systems in Essex has revealed a new technology for aircraft

  • The smart skin would be embedded with thousands of micro-sensors

  • The sensors act like human skin to detect damage and ‘feel’ the world 

  • These can sense wind speed, temperature and movement accurately

  • Could then monitor health and locate potential problems like our bodies

A system that allows the exterior of aircraft to “feel” damage or injury in a way similar to human skin is being developed by British experts.

Dailymail revealed that Engineers at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre are investigating a ‘smart skin’ concept which could be embedded with tens of thousands of micro-sensors.

When applied to an aircraft, it will enable it to sense wind speed, temperature, physical strain and movement, far more accurately than current sensor technology allows.

Aircraft to be given 'human-like skin' to sense damage The i mage above show a new technology developed by BAE Systems in Essex . A human-like ‘skin’ will detect damage and ‘feel’ the world around the plane (illustration shown). The smart skin would be embedded with thousands of micro-sensors. These can sense wind speed, temperature and movement accurately

The revolutionary ‘smart skin’ concept will enable aircraft to continually monitor their health, reporting back on potential problems before they become significant.

Engineers say the smart skin system would reduce the need for regular check-ups on the ground and parts could be replaced in a timely manner, increasing the efficiency of aircraft maintenance, the availability of the plane and improving safety.

The tiny sensors or ‘motes’ can be as small as grains of rice and even as small as dust particles at less than 0.002 inches squared (one millimetre squared).

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

The sensors are so small that BAE Systems is exploring the possibility of retrofitting them to existing aircraft and even spraying them on like paint.

Aircraft to be made from 'human-like skin' to enable them to feel damage and monitor their health while flyingEngineers say the smart skin system would reduce the need for regular check-ups on the ground and parts could be replaced in a timely manner, increasing the efficiency of aircraft maintenance.The tiny sensors or ‘motes’ (shown) can be as small as grains of rice and even as small as dust particles

An  analyst also to The BBC that innovation could prove useful “far beyond the military”.

Senior research scientist Lydia Hyde, who came up with the technology, says the idea came to her while watching her tumble dryer, which uses a sensor to prevent overheating.

“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,” she said.

 

‘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, the technology has the potential to be a game-changer for the UK 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.

‘There are also wider civilian applications for the concept which we are exploring.’

The research is part of a range of new systems being investigated by BAE Systems under a major programme exploring next-generation technology for air platforms.

 Jennifer Cole, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) think tank, told the BBC the technology could help stave off natural disasters or everyday annoyances.

“It could help equipment and technology to ‘report back’ on local environmental conditions and alert users to when repairs are needed ahead of schedule if hairline cracks are detected early, for example on flood defences and dams.

“Or it could enable water pipes to ‘switch on’ heating elements automatically during a particularly cold winter that would prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.”

She added: “If similar technology could be applied to cars, it could revolutionise MOT schedules and potentially reduce road accidents.”

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