A human-like skin for aircraft being developed by BAE Systems could allow planes to detect damage and 'feel' the world around them.
The 'smart skin' concept could be embedded with tens of thousands of micro-sensors that would allow an aircraft to sense wind speed, temperature, physical strain and movement, far more accurately than current sensor technology allows.
The tiny sensors or 'motes' – the size of a grain of rice – 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 by spraying them on like paint.
Leading the development is Lydia Hyde, senior research scientist at the company's Advanced Technology Centre, whose 'eureka' moment came when she was doing her washing and observed that her tumble dryer uses a sensor to prevent it from 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.
“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, 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."
Sensory information captured by the sensors would be transmitted wirelessly to a user interface where remote operators would be able to assess the data in real time.
BAE says that enabling aircraft to continually monitor their health 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 research is part of a range of new systems being investigated by BAE Systems under a major programme exploring next-generation technology for air platform