Human-like skin for aircraft under development

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A so-called “smart skin” – made up of tens of thousands of tiny sensors – could be fitted to future aircraft so that they can “feel” changes in speed, temperature, physical strain and movement.

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The system, which is being developed by BAE System’s Advanced Technology Centre in Essex, will also allow the exterior of aircraft to “feel” damage or injury in a way similar to human skin.

The British defence contractor said that the smart skin is embedded with tiny sensors the size of rice grains that could be sprayed on existing aircraft like paint, making it far more accurate than current sensor technology.

The idea for the smart skin came about when BAE senior research scientist Lydia Hyde noticed a sensor in her tumble dryer that prevented it from overheating.

She said: “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.

“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. 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.”

Stuart O’Connor