MIAMI – New aviation industry technologies — like sensors, AI-powered monitoring systems, and alternative fuels — are helping to make the airplane industry much safer and more efficient.
Significant innovations from the past few years have led to some of the safest years on record for aviation, and the industry appears to be on track to continue improving those numbers.
These are the key industry innovations helping to make planes safer, easier to manufacture, and simpler to maintain.
1. Structural Health Monitoring (SHM)
New types of real-time sensors can provide valuable information on the structural health of an aircraft, both while it’s on the ground and in the air.
Structural health monitoring sensors use various monitoring techniques — like piezoelectrics and comparative vacuum monitoring (CVM) — to continuously monitor for cracks, stress, and other damage to the structure of the aircraft.
CVM sensors, for example, track subtle changes in plane gallery pressure. Changes in pressure can suggest the appearance of a tiny crack that has intersected the gallery.
Piezoelectric sensors embedded throughout an aircraft, on the other hand, communicate with each other using ultrasonic waves. When communication is disrupted, it can suggest a crack.
These sensors provide real-time information on the health of the plane structure. In addition to regular visual inspections for cracks and damage, sensors can help aircraft maintenance teams prevent tiny cracks from growing into large problems. Sensors can also catch problems as they emerge in the air, helping to prevent these problems from emerging or becoming more serious while the plane is airborne.
Data from structural health monitors can provide both instant alerts as well as a foundation for predictive structural health algorithms. These algorithms draw on data from plane sensors to predict when cracks are likely to appear — allowing airlines and aircraft owners to prepare for maintenance or adjust flight schedules accordingly.
2. Pilot Fatigue Monitors
Like truck drivers and cargo ship crew, pilots are often exhausted. Working long hours that require near-constant attention and communication with other pilots and airline staff can easily cause pilots to be significantly fatigued during routine flights.
One 2013 study reported that more than 50% of all pilots have fallen asleep during a flight. Of that 50%, nearly half reported that they awakened to find their co-pilots had also fallen asleep.
As a result, various pilot fatigue monitoring solutions are becoming more common. Boeing’s approach, for example, was to develop an “Alertness Model” that sounds an alarm when a plane’s controls haven’t been touched for a certain amount of time. The solution also incorporates data reporting tools that help managers minimize fatigue and optimize scheduling.
Other technology takes a more proactive approach and aims to prevent fatigue before it becomes a problem. Some AI scheduling algorithms and fatigue monitors adopted by airlines, for example, try to predict when schedules are too harsh and likely to cause pilots to become fatigued. These algorithms can help create more humane and less fatiguing schedules.
3. Novel Aircraft Coatings and Coating Maintenance Systems
Coatings that protect metal parts against corrosion and wear are essential for modern aircraft. Powder coatings can provide the durability, weather resistance, and longevity aircraft need to withstand their harsh operating environments, helping to prevent wear and galling.
New systems that are more effective than conventional tools at detecting corrosion can also help maintain metal surfaces and components.
Naval aircraft inspectors, for example, have begun to use a tool called the Grey Gecko Real-Time Inspection Tool (GRIT) system, which uses an infrared (IR) camera to capture images of the surface beneath aircraft surface coatings.
These images can provide better information than a typical visual inspection can, allowing technicians to more easily catch signs of corrosion and wear.
4. Additive Manufacturing for Replacement Parts
Additive manufacturing approaches like 3D printing have quickly emerged as a popular alternative to more conventional manufacturing techniques.
With 3D printing, manufacturers can fabricate individual parts or components on-demand and in a way that minimizes waste. The technique can help speed manufacturing cycle time, simplify the prototyping process, and make the fabrication of replacement parts much more practical.
While the technology isn’t likely to replace conventional manufacturing altogether, many major aviation manufacturers already rely on 3D printing for day-to-day work. Boeing, for example, claims that more than 70,000 3D printed components “fly through Boeing commercial and defense programs.”
Increasingly, businesses are also using 3D printing to create replacements for OEM parts that are no longer manufactured at scale. On-demand 3D printing like this can help ensure replacement parts remain available long after a manufacturer has stopped producing new planes of a certain model.
These replacement components can extend the lifespan of legacy equipment and prevent grounding due to the unavailability of simple but essential parts like wingtip fences. Recent innovations in 3D printing technology mean these replacement parts can be made from similar materials used in the original part, like metal.
5. Net-zero Fuel and Alternative-Fuel Aircraft
Manufacturers are experimenting with new aircraft that require no traditional aviation fuels while in flight. These types of fuels and commonly known as Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). Case in point: hydrogen.
Liquid hydrogen isn’t as energy-dense as more conventional aviation fuels, but it does have one major advantage — when it combusts in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, it produces just water vapor as a waste product.
Because hydrogen can also be produced without the use of fossil fuels through electrolysis, it is an excellent alternative fuel source for an industry that has struggled for years with carbon dioxide emissions.
Like 3D printing, hydrogen fuel isn’t mainstream yet, but a number of companies have already launched experimental hydrogen fuel-powered planes. Major aircraft manufacturers, like Airbus, have also begun concept work on hydrogen-powered aircraft like jumbo jets.
Some aircraft manufacturers are taking an even more ambitious approach by attempting to leverage rapidly advancing battery storage technologies to remove the need for fuel altogether. Electric and hybrid-electric planes could help make air travel much greener — like hydrogen-fuel planes. While they are likely to remain experimental for some time, they could see their adoption within a decade.
How Tech Is Transforming the Aviation Industry
New technology is likely to significantly reshape air travel and aircraft manufacturing. Improved structural health monitoring, aircraft coating maintenance systems, and zero-fuel planes may all help to reduce the environmental impact of the industry while improving aircraft lifespans.
Article written by technology journalist Emily Newton. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations. Featured image: Aurora 3D printed prototype. Photo: Stratasys, Ltd.