Aeroplanes of the future could be coated with synthetic "skin" which allows them to sense changes in temperature and wind speed, and warn early on if they are damaged, says a senior scientist at BAE systems.
The so-called "smart-skin" would consist of tiny sensors, or "motes", just 0.05mm square which would monitor heat and allow the plane to "feel" the atmosphere around it, providing an early warning in the event of wear and tear. The motes are so small they could be applied in the form of paint.
BAE systems claims: "The revolutionary 'smart skin' concept will enable aircraft to continually monitor their health, reporting back on potential problems before they become significant. This would reduce the need for regular check-ups on the ground and parts could be replaced in a timely manner, increasing the efficiency of aircraft maintenance, the availability of the plane and improving safety."
Lydia Hyde, a senior research scientist at BAE Systems' Advanced Technology Centre, came up with the idea when she was doing the laundry at home – and had a eureka moment watching the tumble dryer.
"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," says Hyde.
"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."
The "smart-skin" is the latest in a range of new technologies announced by BAE recently. They are also working on a "Survivor" system in which a plane fitted with an outer coating of carbon nanotubes could "heal" itself in mid-air following a missile strike.
"Transformer" planes which can join and separate in mid-air and drones which could be built using 3D printers aboard planes are also thought to be technologically feasible.
British-based BAE systems is the world's second-largest defence, aerospace and security company.
Last month it announced a 7.5% drop in half-yearly profits, partly as a result of cuts in US military spending.