Using tiny sophisticated sensors, planes (and indeed other types of craft) could be covered with an almost human-like skin in the future, which would allow them to "feel" any problems occurring before they develop into any sort of a real issue.
Such a skin is apparently being worked on by BAE Systems, and the idea is that thousands of micro-sensors would cover the surface area of a plane, and could gauge all sorts of measurements, such as temperature, physical strain, and wind speed. If any of these were rising rapidly in an area, the pilot (or other flight crew) could be notified well before a serious issue actually manifested itself.
Of course, current sensors can detect problems with an aircraft, but this "smart skin" would allow for far more accurate and early detection. The sensors could be as small as a grain of rice, or potentially a dust particle, and would have their own power source. They'd use software to communicate with the plane's computer systems in much the same way that our skin sends signals to our brain when it's damaged, hotter, and so forth.
The tech was dreamed up by Lydia Hyde, a senior scientist at BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre, who came up with the idea while watching her tumble dryer in action, and the way it employs a sensor to prevent overheating.
She said: "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. 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."
Hyde added: "By combining the outputs of thousands of sensors with big data analysis, the technology has the potential to be a game-changer for the UK industry. In the future we could see more robust defence platforms that are capable of more complex missions whilst reducing the need for routine maintenance checks. There are also wider civilian applications for the concept which we are exploring."
Of course, less check-ups for aircraft on the ground would mean more efficient maintenance processes, and theoretically better safety along with that efficiency, too.
While you could worry about the possibility of faulty sensors, there are that many on board and covering all areas that presumably this won't be an issue – software flaws are probably the biggest concern if we're looking for potential holes in the system when it comes to decreasing the amount of ground maintenance carried out. And there's also the danger of rogue hackers, but then that's true of any computer system of course.
BAE Systems is also considering whether the sensors could be fitted to existing planes, perhaps by a process which sprayed them on the surface like a coat of paint.
If you want to hear more about smart skin, you can listen to Hyde talk about it in greater detail on YouTube (audio only) here.