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Human Skin Inspires Aircraft Technology

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We tend to think about our skin a lot less than we should. My apologies to our dermatologist readers, they probably do it more often.

Anyway, skin. It’s the largest organ we possess and it provides a much needed barrier between us and the dangerous environment we call “the rest of the world”. Apart from that, it’s full of advanced sensors that can detect heat, pain and pressure. If it wasn’t for them, we would have set fire to ourselves shortly after discovering fire. So let’s all take a moment and be grateful to our skin.

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You guys are so lucky…

In 1998, the Smartdust Project set the goal of developing smart sensors smaller than a grain of rice that were capable of autonomous sensing and communication. Although this project ended early, it led to what we refer today as motes. These tiny gizmos possess computing power, they can communicate with each other and they require small amounts of energy to work.

Recently, BAE Systems started investigating the idea of incorporating thousands of motes into a “smart skin” that could be applied to aircraft. This wold allow said aircraft to constantly monitor factors such as wind speed, temperature, pressure and movement in a far better way than current technology does. This network of sensors combined with an appropriate software would work the same way human skin does. They are so small that they could easily be fitted on existing aircraft. They could even be spray painted on.

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But what if they get itchy?

A working smart skin system would be a huge leap forward in many fields. Imagine the advantage of monitoring all of the factors that cause strain on moving planes, cars and ships. This would essentially let us know about problems before they even occur. Current sensor technology is expensive and bulky and can provide nowhere near as much information as the smart skin could.

Many aviation disasters occurred because of undetected weak spots that eventually compromised the plane’s structural integrity and because regular maintenance failed to spot them. The tiny sensors within the smart skin would have no problem detecting problems before they pose greater risks. This would in turn lead to more efficient maintenance, increased plane availability and safety.

Senior Research Scientist Lydia Hyde of BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Center stated that “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.”

It seems the future is nearing and frankly we’re happy to welcome it.

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