Posted By Simon Montford on Sept 17, 2014
A sixth generation air superiority fighter concept.
As an entrepreneur and innovation specialist, I am fascinated by new technologies. I am constantly thinking about how they could be utilized and what impact they may have on society in general.
I was recently approached by a European startup that has developed some very interesting patent protected Structural Health Monitoring (SHM) technology that is capable of monitoring the condition of high value assets like aircraft, in real-time. Not only that but their diagnosis and prognosis algorithms could be used to predict damage and structural failure before it happens. Furthermore some of the smart materials they are developing could one day enable aircraft to self heal during operation!
SHM acts like a central nervous system. It is made up of wires and sensors that save data to an insitu storage device called a DAQ. Now that the IIOT has become a reality the SHM system can be connected to the Internet so that the operator can access the data and monitor remote assets in real-time. SHM systems can be installed during production or retro-fitted to ageing assets. SHM is a no brainer for the military because more then 50% (mostly transport aircraft and aerial refuelling tankers) owned by the RAF and USAF have been in operation for over 40 years. This prompted me to undertake some initial market research. I reached out to a few of my most informed contacts within academia and information technology to obtain an insight and what I discovered is that this is one seriously exciting technology that could have a hugely positive impact beyond the aerospace sector.
There is no doubt in my mind that many industry verticals will be revolutionised by smart material innovations and structural health monitoring. Some examples where SHM and smart materials could be applied are the Oil and Gas industry; self-healing drilling parts and remote monitoring of off-shore rigs. The commercial aerospace industry; nano enforced materials to protect satellites and spacecraft from debris impact and SHM to monitor corrosion and damage between scheduled maintenance checks. The Construction and Transport industry; to incorporate self-healing rubber, asphalt and concrete into buildings, bridges and roads and SHM to monitor the condition and structural integrity of assets and infrastructure, what is commonly referred to as 'smart cities'.
The Illinois group is already commercialising their work via a spin-out company, Autonomic Materials, which has raised about $4m (£2.4m) of investment from Phoenix Venture Partners. Microcapsule systems are likely to be used in coatings, paints and adhesives for environments where corrosion poses a challenge (corrosion costs over $500bn a year).
The automobile industry will incorporate polymer-based self-healing paint that heals if dented or scratched by a key and we will see self-healing wires, circuits and screens used in the Electronics and Telecommunications industry.
Lockheed Martin revealed that they will be using ‘self-healing structures’ in their 6th generation fighter jet and the United States Department of Defense is already utilizing self-healing materials. ‘Battle Jacket’ is a self-healing protective coating that when applied to combat vehicle fuel tanks protects them from enemy fire by instantly sealing bullet holes to prevent leakage.
In fact the DOD has been extremely active in this area. More recently they have called for proposals in the area of aircraft structural health monitoring and self-healing.
Another reason why the military is so keen to utilize structural health monitoring systems is that 80% of military maintenance is done on components that are perfectly fine! If applied to expensive assets such as aircraft, ships and other costly equipment, additives contained with self-healing coatings could repair corrosion and fix fractures leading to major cost savings. In addition, down-time associated with repainting and servicing could be reduced substantially so the total percentage of battle-ready assets in operation at anyone time could be increased significantly.
Don’t forget that many of today’s technologies that we take for granted such as the Internet, GPS and digital cameras were invented or first adopted by the military. Smart materials are no exception.
With regards to civil aircraft, there is no doubt that smart materials will become widely adopted but aircraft OEMs. However the cycle of innovation within the airline industry moves at a snail's pace so who knows when this technology will eventually trickle into the civil aviation supply train. Currently, airline operators use a preventative maintenance approach, where parts are replaced on a schedule so healthy parts are needlessly replaced. This currently costs the industry millions every year as maintenance makes up 11%+ of an operator’s total operating costs so SHM and self-healing materials will have a huge ecological and economical impact when if finally arrives.
In future, operators will able to monitor the structural health of everything from aircraft fleets to cities in real-time which would not only save money but potentially lives.
I predict that SHM and smart material technologies will become adopted by the military within 5 years, civil aviation within 5-10 years, and smart cities soon so, watch this exciting space!
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