Future aircraft could have 'smart skin' that feels injuries

Networked micro-sensors could pave the way for aircraft—and other vehicles—that can detect damage and sense their environment, say BAE Systems researchers.

BAE smart skin concept

Future aircraft may be able to sense their own “health” with surfaces that act in a way similar to human skin, according to researchers at BAE Systems.

The company is investigating a “smart skin” concept that would involve the use of thousands of micro-sensors that would be embedded into aircraft, according to a company release. Those sensors, or motes, would then detect wind speed, temperatures and physical strain.

The motes are envisioned to be in the size range between grains of rice and dust particles less than 1 millimeter squared, and would have their own power source. Because of their size, BAE Systems is looking at the possibility of retrofitting current aircraft by spraying the motes on like paint.

Combined with software, the motes would then collaborate and act like human skin, sending signals to a computer that could then conduct big data analysis on the gathered information and display the results in real time on a user interface operated by a remote user.

Eventually, the system could allow aircraft to monitor their own health and detect potential maintenance problems, reducing the amount of regular check-ups on aircraft systems, the company said. This means more efficient aircraft upkeep and better overall safety, while extending the amount of time the plane can be used.

“By combining the outputs of thousands of sensors with big data analysis, the technology has the potential to be a game-changer,” Lydia Hyde, Senior Research Scientist form BAE, said in the release. “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.”

Hyde unexpectedly came up with concept while doing the laundry -- she noticed that her dryer used a small sensor to prevent 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, multifunctional ones,” Hyde said. “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 idea of covering vehicles with a network of sensors isn’t entirely new, however. Researchers at Stanford have developed a flexible mesh of sensors that can wrap around aircraft and other vehicles, providing information about cracks or strain. Using a system of lightweight gold sensors placed on a plastic sheet, the mesh can stretch more than 265 time its original size and resembles a giant spider web, according to a 2010 report in Popular Science. Scientists speculated at the time that, among other uses, the mesh could be used to give robots a sensitive skin.

The smart skin concept is among several innovations that BAE Systems is investigating. Earlier this year, the company released a video that visualized future concepts such as self-repairing aircraft, on-board 3D printing and transforming aircraft.