Giving aircraft development skin

Engineers at BAE Systems are developing a human-like skin for their aircraft as part of a project the manufacturer hopes will increase damage detection capabilities.

As part of BAE’s exploration of future aircraft technologies, work is being undertaken at the company’s Advanced Technology Centre to investigate the smart skin concept, which would see material embedded with tens of thousands of micro-sensors.

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

BAE said the smart skin concept would enable aircraft to reduce the need for regular ground check-ups and parts could be replaced in a timely manner, increasing the efficiency of aircraft maintenance, the availability of the plane and improving safety.

The sensors, which can be as small as a grain of rice, have their own power source and would communicate in much the same way that human skin sends signals to the brain.

Given the sensors’ miniscule size, BAE is also exploring the possibility of retrofitting them to existing aircraft and even spraying them on like paint.

Senior research scientist Lydia Hyde said she got the idea when doing her washing and observing that her tumble dyer 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 explained.

“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.”

She added: “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.”