Aircraft of the Future May Be Cloaked In a Sensitive ‘Smart Skin’

Someday, pilots might be able to strap on a pair of goggles, hop into a cockpit, and fly their planes using augmented reality. They’d be suspended in air, but the only “real” objects directly in sight would be the pilot’s own hands and the joystick. Everything else? Pure data.

In a sense, then, the ultimate goal is special kind of aircraft that would be invisible to its pilot—but everything about the plane (how the engine’s doing, whether or not equipment is functioning properly, the atmospheric pressure behind the plane, etc.) would be ultra-visible. Each aspect of its construction and operation would be instantaneously available in one large “panorama” of aeronautical information.

In a step toward this long-term goal, a team at BAE Systems led by senior research scientist Lydia Hyde has developed microsensors the size of a grain of rice. The company envisions coating new and old planes with tens of thousands of these tiny sensors, creating a sensitive “skin” that would help pilots detect wind speed, temperature, physical strain, and movement with greater accuracy than ever before. When coupled with the right software, this “skin” would communicate with the pilot in a way similar to how human skin sends messages to the brain. These advances would boost overall flight efficiency and safety. Plus, smaller sensors are more economical than bulky, expensive ones.

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An artist’s concept of a future aircraft’s "smart skin."

Here’s Liat Clark, writing for Wired:

Right now, a team led by Hyde has engineered a panel of around half a metre squared that is covered in a version of these sensors that have been scaled down to a few millimetres.

“It’s covered in temperature sensors, motion sensors, it has GPS capability and touch sensors,” Hyde, who works in BAE’s Advanced Technology Centre, tells Wired.co.uk. “Data is all sent to an interface, and the user will see a red area and know that’s a bit of extreme heat. They can also see where it’s being touched.” Right now that means we can demonstrate when people touch it. In the air, that touch might be related to a bird or hail—”things that might compromise it,” says Hyde. The sensors all talk to each other, as well, removing the need for wiring and allowing the system to operate as a whole.

The researchers expect that this technology would be available for commercial use in 10-15 years. It’s not too far off—but to get there, they’ll have to figure out how many sensors are needed and how they should be arranged. Eventually, our planes could literally feel their way through the skies.