Editorial Feature

How Do Sensors Help to Improve the Safety of Air Travel

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The aviation industry is making great strides forward in its use of technology to improve flight safety. Sensors are increasingly being used in this industry to relay all kinds of information that can improve on safety through improving aircraft maintenance through the development of structural health monitoring systems, understanding and relaying data on icing conditions, and through continuous monitoring to enhance operations.

Using Sensors for Routine Aircraft Maintenance

Over recent years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has implemented testing on sensor carrying commercial aircraft in order to determine how accurately and reliably they monitor the plane's structural health and how they assist in routine maintenance. Results of the tests have shown that the remote sensors, which are placed in hard-to-reach areas of the aircraft, are safe and reliable at carrying out maintenance activities at the same standard as previous on-ground inspections.

The sensors are able to feedback in real-time data regarding the aircraft’s maintenance status. Having this data available during flights can help alert technicians at the first sign of any structural damage.

The two main sensors used to oversee maintenance are Comparative Vacuum Monitoring (CVM) sensors and piezoelectric sensor arrays. CVMs detect cracks in the structure by monitoring pressure changes inside the vacuum created between the surface and the monitor. As tiny cracks intersect the vacuum, drops in pressure are measured.

Piezoelectric sensor arrays are distributed in polyimide films and adhered to the aircraft’s surface. The sensors communicate with each other, connected through receiving and transmitting ultrasonic surface waves. Any damage to the aircraft disrupts these waves and alerts technicians to the area where damage has occurred.

Detecting Icing Conditions

Ice presents a danger to the safety of air travel. During a flight, ice can build up on the aircraft’s surface, which can lead to stalls and even crashes through its disruption of smooth airflow.

An icing remote sensor program is currently underway at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. The aim of the project is to develop sensor technology, alongside other technology, in order to improve on data that is available to aircraft pilots and technicians, enabling them to gain a more accurate picture of the icy conditions.

While the project is still in the development stage, the research is already discovering how ice accumulation on aircraft surfaces or within the engines can impact flight behavior. The project is developing tools that can read particle density distribution, vertical temperature, water vapor profiles, liquid water present aloft, and refined cloud base measurements.

The continued work at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and similar projects will help to develop sensors to detect icing conditions that will improve on air travel safety through the understanding of how ice impacts during flight and through relaying important data on ice status of the aircraft directly to the pilots.

Enhancing the Accuracy and Reliability of All Data Sources

IoT (internet of things) sensors are currently used on planes to provide a continuous stream of data on the status of a multitude of factors. These sensors can provide information on key readings such as temperature, pressure, vibration, and other measurements of the plane’s physical performance. This data is not only available to the pilots, but through being connected, the sensors also connect with support facilities on the ground and are fed through analytical programs to flag any information which may represent an issue that needs to be addressed.

This continual real-time monitoring and analysis make air travel safer as it gives more fine-grain detail on the numerous factors that can impact flight behavior, as well as rapidly alerting pilots and support facilities to any areas that need immediate attention.

The use of sensors in air travel is developing quickly, and they have already proven to be useful in increasing safety through their ability to identify and report on numerous factors that could but the flight in jeopardy. In the near future, we can expect to see continual development of sensors in this sector, and along with it, we will see the safety of air travel benefit from this advancement in technology


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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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