Scientists at BAE Systems have developed a sensing skin for aircraft that could have applications for the built environment.
BAE Systems Scientists at BAE Systems have developed a sensing skin for aircraft that could have applications for the built environment.

Resilience has become a high priority for designers, engineers, and manufacturers. The concept of rapid recovery from harmful events—natural and man-made—suggests the need for objects that can adapt physically and are structurally robust. It also points to the benefits of materials with self-monitoring capabilities that can detect and report damaging forces that affect them.

Scientists at Arlington, Va.–based global defense, security, and aerospace firm BAE Systems are developing such a capability for aircraft in the form of a human-like skin that can sense its immediate surroundings. The smart-skin technology will monitor multiple environmental factors, including temperature, wind speed, physical movement, and mechanical stress. Although electronic sensors that detect such factors already exist, the smart skin’s innovation lies in its high resolution. The sensory cladding would be composed of tens of thousands of micro sensors—which the scientists call motes and can measure less than 1-millimeter square—that together will approximate the closely spaced nerve cells in human skin. The researchers anticipate that these motes could be applied to both new and existing aircraft in the form of a spray-applied coating.

Like many innovations, the smart skin is an example of a technology transfer from one industry to another. The idea first came to BAE Systems’ senior research scientist Lydia Hyde when she became aware of the sensors used in clothes dryers 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, multi-functional ones,” Hyde said in a press release. "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.”

It is compelling to imagine buildings one day clad in smart skins, endowed with the capability to detect and report damage from events such as storms, earthquakes, and vandalism. Though the widespread implementation of the technology would likely be prohibitively expensive, it could be applied surgically in critical uses—such as vital public infrastructure or research outposts in hazardous environments.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.