Self-Repairing Aircraft a Possibility within Four Years

May 22, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

A recent breakthrough in biomimics could bring about self-repairing aircraft. The technique, which is being developed in Britain, essentially mimics the natural healing process found in plants and animals. Though still in the testing and development phase, if the new research is used it could have a lot of positive implications for the aeronautics industry.

The problem of general maintenance on airplanes is not a new one. As airplanes age, their skins slowly start to develop tiny cracks and small holes. For decades the problem has been countered by skillful mechanics who are trained to spot these problems during regular maintenance checks. However, because of their diminutive size, the holes and cracks are still hard to spot and sometimes they are missed altogether. The new research is essentially designed to compliment this checking procedure, making cracks more visible to mechanics and sealing off trouble areas before they become a potentially devastating problem. The main benefit of the system is that it essentially allows the aircraft to heal itself while still in the air, helping to return the structural integrity of that particular part of the aircraft to up to 90 percent of its original strength.

The new composite material is essentially laden with hollow fibers that are filled with brightly colored epoxy resin. When the material is damaged, the resin leaks out into the small crack or hole and seals it, returning strength to the material almost immediately. The brightly colored resin is then easy to spot by mechanics who can then ensure that the trouble area is properly repaired before the aircraft takes off again. The research teams are also currently developing systems where the healing agent isn’t contained in individual fibers but rather moves around the entire aircraft as part of a vascular network system. This would make it far easier to refill or replace the healing agent and so could enable the aircraft to ‘heal’ itself continuously during the course of its lifespan. This system has potential to be developed in other ways. For example it could change the way that temperature is controlled or energy is distributed in a number of man-made structures.

The new ‘self-healing’ system is not intended to replace mechanic repairs, but rather to compliment it. The system also improves the reliability and safety of using fiber-reinforced polymers in aircraft. This makes them a more acceptable alternative to aluminum and, since the material is lighter, aircraft could be made to be not only safer, but more fuel efficient. The same technology could be carried across to automobiles and spacecraft and should essentially prove to be less detrimental to our planet. Researchers believe that the technology is so beneficial that we could see it being adopted on a commercial scale within the next four years.

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