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Researchers Develop Sensor Film for Aerospace Monitoring

The researchers of Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg have been granted a price for employing a novel concept of using a sensor film to track how well spacecraft and aircraft resist the mechanical stresses of flight. This price also includes a huge amount of money.

Model of the sensor film for measuring the material load of air and space vehicles in flight.
Model of the sensor film for measuring the material load of air and space vehicles in flight. On the right, the trophy with which this idea was awarded. Image Credit: Alexander Hilgarth / Universität Würzburg.

The Chair of Aerospace Information Technology had great pleasure as Alexander Hilgarth, and Professor Sergio Montenegro emerged successful in the international INNOspace Masters competition.

The duo won the second prize for their concept on sensor film that can be applied to the components of aerospace vehicles and monitor them during flight. The award carries financial support of up to 400,000 Euros.

The scientists from JMU Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany, have planned to use the money to create the sensor film for its first application. They have proved their idea’s workability in the preliminary studies. The follow-up work will begin in late autumn 2021 and is expected to be completed in two years.

What are the Benefits of Such a Film?

Eventually, the sensor film can lower the maintenance costs in aerospace and realize the reusability of space vehicles.

Only the reusability of carrier systems and components ensures the economic viability of being able to operate space travel in the sense of the New Space. However, the possible cost savings are currently still limited by high maintenance costs.

Alexander Hilgarth, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

New Space's buzzword denotes the trend that private companies are also working on to develop space activities—for instance, the company SpaceX of the American entrepreneur Elon Musk. Toward the end of 2020, the company employed a space capsule on behalf of NASA to transport astronauts initially to the International Space Station (ISS) and then back to Earth after several months.

Furthermore, the sensor film can detect material flaws that happen only under mechanical stress but stay hidden during inspections in the hangar.

One example of this are cracks whose fracture edges rejoin perfectly when unloaded.

Alexander Hilgarth, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

For instance, these kinds of defects have been noticed in composite materials made of plastics.

Film Interconnects a Wireless Sensor Network

It is currently viable to track spacecraft and aircraft in flight with a detailed installation of measuring probes. According to an electrical engineer from JMU, “Conventional measurement technology is too big and too heavy for that.” This can be changed by TOMOPLEX (“Tomographic Plexus”) sensor film from Würzburg, as it can facilitate continuous real-time monitoring.

The film employs tomographic measuring techniques that are yet to be used in aerospace. It serves as a circuit carrier for the wireless sensor network. The JMU scientists note that the film saves space and also has good flexibility. It can also be fitted in places that are hard to reach on spacecraft and aircraft.

Facts About the Competition

The recent version of the INNOspace Masters competition was conducted under “Innovations for Sustainable Infrastructures—in Space and on Earth.” It focused on start-ups, smaller companies, universities, and non-university research institutions across the globe. On the whole, 330 teams from 23 countries presented their 126 ideas.

Finally, 15 ideas were selected and awarded prizes in five categories. The prizes were presented at an online conference held on July 29th, 2021. The event was the sixth edition and organized by the German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

The competition forms part of the INNOspace initiative that promotes technology transfers and innovation among space and non-space industries right from 2013.

Success for the Second Time

The research group led by Sergio Montenegro has already won an award in INNOspace Masters Challenge in 2016, where it bagged first place in the overall competition for their idea on wireless small satellite SKITH (Skip the Harness). This led to the INNOcube project, where Montenegro’s team is collaborating with TU Braunschweig to bring a wireless satellite into orbit. The launch has been scheduled for 2023.

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