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ice buildup on an aeroplane aviation

Ice sensors developed to detect build-up on aeroplane wings

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers have developed a new sensor that can detect ice accumulation in real-time and could be used to boost airline safety and efficiency.

The team from UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering aimed to develop a sensor that could detect the precise moment when ice begins to form on a surface. Due to their high sensitivity, low power, ease of fabrication and planar profile, the team chose to use microwave resonators.

Ice build-up on airplane wings has led to major accidents in the past, such as US Air Flight 405 in 1992 which crashed in poor weather shortly after lift off from a New York airport. The incident, which killed 27 people, was largely blamed on ice accumulation on the wings which prevented the plane from getting sufficient amounts of lift to properly become airbourne.

“The ice-detection systems used today are quite rudimentary. For example, pilots visually detect ice on aircraft wings before de-icing in flight,” said Kevin Golovin, who runs the Okanagan Polymer Engineering Research and Applications Lab. “On the tarmac, certifying that the aircraft is free of ice after de-icing is also done by visual inspection, which is susceptible to human error and environmental changes.”

Planar microwave resonator sensors are simple traces of metal deposited onto a plastic that are mechanically robust, sensitive and easy to fabricate, the researchers said.

“The sensors give a complete picture of the icing conditions on any surface, like an airplane wing. They can detect when water hits the wing, track the phase transition from water to ice and then measure the thickness of the ice as it grows, all without altering the aerodynamic profile of the wing.”

The sensors should also be able to detect when ice has melted off the wing during de-icing, potentially alerting staff members if the job hasn’t been carried out sufficiently.

The sensitivity and precision of the sensors means the detection occurs in real time, which could make both ground and in-flight de-icing faster, cheaper and much more efficient.

“The resonator detected frost formation within seconds after the sensor was cooled below freezing,” said Benjamin Wiltshire, first author of the study. “It took about two minutes at -10°C for the frost to become visible on the resonator with the naked eye - and that’s in one small area in ideal lab conditions. Imagine trying to detect ice over an entire wingspan during a blizzard.”

Professor Mohammad Zarifi, who also worked on the project, said that research on the detection of ice and frost has not been undertaken before this project despite the clear benefits of the technology for transportation and safety applications.

“This is a brand-new method for detecting ice formation quickly and accurately,” he said. “The radio frequency and microwave technology can even be made wireless and contactless. I wouldn’t be surprised if airlines start adopting the technology even for this upcoming winter.”

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