Self-Healing Aircraft

Researchers develop a liquid healing agent for the skins of aircraft and missiles

In-flight damage to the skin of an aircraft or missile can degrade its abilities or take it out. However, research under way at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign could make Air Force aerospace vehicles and weapons systems self-healing.

Professors Scott White and Nancy Sottos are developing a synthetic material inspired by human skin and plant leaves that can repair itself by supplying a liquid healing agent to damaged areas through a network of structures similar to blood vessels.

The project for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) is one of 34 approved March 18 by the Defense Department's Multidisciplinary Research Initiative program. That is a $200 million, five-year effort that funds DOD technology research.

The nature of the program requires assembling teams from multiple academic institutions and academic departments. Sixty-four academic institutions are expected to participate in the program’s 34 research efforts. White and Sottos developed a new type of plastic to repair small cracks that form deep inside polymeric materials, said Byung-Lip Lee, an AFOSR program manager.

“The cracks are hard to detect and fix and can lead to mechanical problems or electrical failure,” he said. “The study demonstrated that the performance of self-healing materials can be improved by incorporating a circulatory system and continuously transporting a supply of healing agent. The material can heal a crack in the same location up to seven times, significantly extending its life.” White leads the project’s team of researchers from the University of Illinois, Duke University and University of California, Los Angeles.

Another project awardee, based at Carnegie Mellon University seeks to develop an artificial-intelligence model that could predict how terrorist networks will develop organizationally and geographically.

Projecting the evolution of terrorist organizations is important for management, command and control structures and intelligence analysis research, said Kathleen Carley, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and principal investigator of the project. Carley is joined by researchers at Rhode Island College and East Carolina University.

“By knowing future social and spatial distributions, an analyst can identify emergent leaders, hot spots and organizational vulnerabilities,” she said. “Historically, such estimations have depended heavily on qualitative data analyses by subject-matter experts.” Carley’s project builds on earlier research that used artificial intelligence and simulation to model organizational complexity and near-term organizational changes. This project seeks to create a model that can examine the interaction between physical and social movements.

Another MURI project centered at Carnegie Mellon involves incorporating intelligent software assistants into human teams.

“Our software assistants can anticipate the information needs of their human team members, prepare and communicate task information, and adapt to changes in situations and capabilities of other team members,” said Katia Sycara, a research professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

“This research has implications for other types of planning teams that comprise multidisciplinary experts, including civilian emergency response, management, and single-service military teams, she said.”

Other researchers on Sycara’s project are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, George Mason University and University of Pittsburgh.

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