Sunday, October 3, 2010

Airplanes of the future could be self-healing

A new technology inspired by the self-healing powers of plants and animals may allow damaged planes to fix themselves on the fly and point out even minuscule holes to maintenance personnel upon landing. Imagine if airplanes could miraculously heal cracks or holes in the skin during flight. Interestingly enough, researchers in Britain are attempting to make this dream a reality using a technique that utilizes composite materials that "bleed" when damaged—creating a "scab" of sorts that mimics our own natural healing process. This composite material is made of hollow fibers that are filled with an epoxy resin that will leak out if damaged. The researchers claim that this resin can return the structure to 80-90% of its original strength when dried. It is also colored so that ground crews have an easy visual on areas where repair is needed. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this technology is confined to minor damage, so any major cracks could still send you plummeting towards the Earth. Still, it would be a tremendous improvement that could result in lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft down the road. Airlines won't have to wait forever to see it implemented. Researchers believe that the self-healing technology could go commercial in as little as four years.