Watching from the wings

Aircraft wings built from tiles that detect damage and repair themselves could be developed in a joint Australian/NASA research project.

Researchers working on the Smart Spaces programme at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) laboratories are investigating systems based on networks of embedded devices that sense problems, ‘talk’ to one another, and repair themselves.

The researchers are collaborating with NASA’s Langley Research Centre to develop a wing structure constructed of autonomous tiles that form a self-monitoring and self-repairing network.

Dr. Don Price, leader of the Ageless Aerospace Vehicles project, said his team is two years away from demonstrating a prototype wing structure able to locateprecisely where it is damaged.

While the ultimate goal is to develop a self-repairing system, Price said that the prototype will be used as a test-bed for developing algorithms to enable the system to respond to impact damage.

The demonstrator’s surface will consist of hundreds of 100mm2 aluminium tiles with piezoelectric polymer sensors on the inner surface. These sensors will ‘listen’ for the elastic waves emanating from an impact site and pass data on to powerful digital signal processors mounted on the back of each tile that will interpret the data and control the communications to neighbouring tiles.

The system will behave in a similar way to a colony of ants, said Price. Algorithms will allow the network of tiles to collectively know more about the health of the system than any of the individuals, and to generate more intelligent responses than would be possible by any individual working alone.

As there is no central control, and intelligence is distributed throughout the system, there is no single point of failure, said Price.

Smart Spaces project leader Dr. Geoff James said: ‘This way of engineering complex systems accepts that human error and unexpected events are inevitable, and builds in the flexibility to detect anomalies prior to failure.’

Price speculated that while global research into self-assembling materials is relatively fevered, such systems would initially employ robotic repair agents that could be directed to damage sites.

His team also hopes its research will lead to factories able to predict and avert problems, and farms where soil PH levels are constantly monitored and adjusted.

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