In some cases, a pilot discovering damage to an airplane involves noticing a frightening thump on the hull. That may indicate that something is wrong, but not what or where. On the other hand, when human beings are injured, the network of nerves in the skin tell us almost exactly where and what is wrong. Stealing a march on nature, BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre is working on a "smart skin" that covers the fuselage of an aircraft with thousands of microsensors to send back a wide variety of detailed information in real time.
Currently in concept form, the BAE smart skin is the brainchild of Senior Research Scientist Lydia Hyde, who got the idea from her clothes dryer’s ability to switch itself off if it overheats. She reasoned that if one sensor in a washer is good, then thousands of tiny ones are better.
"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," says Hyde. "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."
The concept involves replacing the conventional pitot tubes, thermometers, and other instruments with a skin on the fuselage of the plane that contains tens of thousands of multi-sensors less than a millimeter across. These are so small that they could even be spray painted on existing aircraft. They would have their own power system, and would connect with one another and the user interface using wireless networking technology.
Once installed, the sensor "motes" would measure airflow, GPS positioning, acceleration, temperature, gyroscope readings, hull strain, and magnetic field strength. Unlike conventional sensors, this skin would not only make discrete measurements, but also record precise patterns of measurements across the hull of an aircraft. The result would be displayed in real time on the user interface. This would allow crews to discover faults while they’re minor instead of when something breaks, as well as collecting data that can be used to increase the aircraft’s efficiency.
"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," says Hyde. "In the future we could see more robust defense 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."
Source: BAE Systems