UK defence firm QinetiQ unveils new material to protect aircraft from impacts

The new Shape Memory Allow from QinetiQ could help to prevent aircraft damage and accidents caused by both bird and lightning strikes - image courtesy of QinetiQ.
The new Shape Memory Allow from QinetiQ could help to prevent aircraft damage and accidents caused by both bird and lightning strikes - image courtesy of QinetiQ.

UK multinational defence technology company, QinetiQ, has developed a rubbery material that could make aircraft structures three times more resistant to impacts such as bird and drone strikes.

The new material was unveiled by QinetiQ at this month’s Farnborough International Airshow and is made from a mesh of high-energy absorbing titanium alloy wires, known as Shape Memory Alloy (SMA), that is woven into a carbon fiber reinforced polymer.

QinetiQ initially designed the material for aircraft to mitigate the damage from hazards such as bird and lightning strikes.

The leading science and technology company, which operates primarily in defence, security and aerospace markets, claims the high-energy absorbing polymer can strengthen the wings and nose of an aircraft by up to three times.

The polymer works by absorbing the energy of the impact and spreading it across a wide surface area, before bouncing it back to its original shape.

To prepare for this claim, QinetiQ carried out tests simulating collisions with an aircraft’s leading edges, such as the nose and wings, which showed a threefold increase in strength compared to normal carbon fibre of the same mass.

NCC helps QinetiQ test Shape Memory Alloy applications

Tests conducted in collaboration with GE Aviation and the National Composites Centre (NCC) have shown similar potential for protecting against burst tyres and other debris that can be thrown up into the underside of an aircraft from a runway.

Shape Memory Alloys are not entirely new

In 2005 and 2006, Boeing conducted successful flight testing of a variable area fan nozzle using SMA technology and in 2014, the Chevrolet Corvette became the first vehicle to incorporate SMA actuators.

Click here to check out a video demonstration of SMAs by Nottingham University

The new material developed by QinetiQ could help to prevent numerous damage and accidents caused by both bird and lightning strikes each year.

Statistics published by the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration reveal an average of over 10,000 bird strikes per year since 2009, with the number rising each consecutive year.

Aircraft can also be struck by lightning up to twice a year and runaway debris can cause tyres to burst and impact critical aircraft components.

This type of damage costs the industry billions each year while also putting lives at risk. QinetiQ hopes its new material wilol minimise or eradicate these issues completely.

Shape Memory Alloy improves safety without adding weight

Head of Engineering Research & Consultancy at QinetiQ, Andrew Foreman, said the new material would enable operators to maintain high safety measures for aircrafts without adding more mass, which would normally reduce the aircraft’s efficiency.

“Most existing safety measures require extra material to be added to vulnerable areas, adding mass and compromising the aircraft’s efficiency,” he said.

“QinetiQ’s patented composite would enable operators to meet or exceed the same high regulatory standards without adding mass.

“A lighter aircraft uses less fuel, providing opportunities for lower emissions, higher airline profits and reduced fares for travellers.”

Other sectors such as automotive might also benefit

As well as being beneficial to the aerospace industry, Mr Foreman also said the new material could impact other industries. The new material could also help the automotive industry in so much as it could potentially help dramatically reduce the repair costs drivers face after an accident. Potentially the ‘rubbery’ Shape Memory Alloy material could help the bodywork of a vehicle spring back into its original shape.

“Due to the material’s ability to absorb impacts, it has significant potential in industries such as transport and Formula 1,” he said.

“There has been a lot of interest at Farnborough International Airshow from the automotive industry, particularly in the possibilities it could generate for high-end sports cars and supercars.”