When you cut your finger or get a scratch on your hand, your nerves freak out. Within nanoseconds, your brain sense it and tells you that you are hurt. However, when a flight’s exterior is damaged, the pilot often cannot realize it. In the worst scenario, the pilot discovers that something is wrong, but cannot detect where and what damages have occurred.
If the idea of human nervous system can be used in the vehicles, they will be able to sense what has gone wrong. The Engineers at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre is working on this concept. They are trying to develop a smart skin which will cover the exterior surface of an aircraft. The skin will have many micro-sensors that will send back wide varieties of detailed information in real time.
The micro-sensors or the motes can be as small as the dust particles that will take less than a square mm. These sensors when combined with appropriate software, will be able to communicate information in the similar fashion as the human skin sends signals to the brain. The sensors will be so small that they may be easily fitted on the existing aircraft or can be spray painted on the aircraft’s surface.
The motes covering the body of the vehicles can sense the world around them. They can monitor their condition detecting the heat, damage, or stress. When applied to the aircraft this can sense the speed of the wind, physical movement, and temperature far more accurately than what the existing technology allows to measure.
The revolutionary smart skin technology will enable the aircraft to continuously monitor their own health, reporting the potential problem before it turns serious. This will reduce the need for regular check-ups on the ground and the parts will be replaced on time. It will increase the efficiency of the aircraft maintenance which in turn will improve the safety.
Idea behind the research
Lydia Hyde is the Senior Scientist of the team trying to develop the smart skin. The idea clicked in her mind when she was washing her clothes and observed that the clothes dryer uses a sensor to prevent it from overheating. When she observed how a simple sensor used in domestic appliances can sense overheating, she started thinking how the bulky and expensive sensors used on the body of the aircraft can be replaced with cheap, multi-functional and smaller ones. These sensors can also be used on the external surface of the cars or ships. The idea is to make the platforms feel, just like the human and animal skin does.
The future as demonstrated by Lydia Hyde may be nearer than we can think of. When the project will be fully successful and implemented on the aircraft, the pilot of the commercial flights or military jet will be able to see what is behind them, what is at the sides, or what is below them. Obviously this technology will be first used in defense aircrafts and then will be introduced to the commercial sectors. The pilots will also be able to spot any glitches in the system, or check how the engine is running.
According to Hyde, the temperature sensors, motion sensors, GPS feature, and the touch sensors will all send data to an interface. The users will be able to see a red area and interpret that temperature is high in that area. They can also sense if any part of the aircraft’s body is touched by something. In the air that touch may illustrate hail or a bird. The wireless sensors will be able to communicate with each other and operate as a whole.
The idea of covering the vehicle with a network of sensors is not new. Researchers at Stanford have developed a mesh of sensors that can cover up an entire vehicle and convey the information of any cracks or strain. According to a report in Popular Science in 2010, the plastic mesh is covered with lightweight gold sensors that can enlarge 265 times of its original size. It looks like a spider web. Apart, from its usage over the vehicle, that mesh also be used as robot’s skin.
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