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updated 4/8/2011 5:35:18 PM ET 2011-04-08T21:35:18

Aircraft maker Cessna is developing a “magic” skin for airplanes that will serve as a kind of high-tech film capable of encasing an entire plane and protecting it against lightning and other weather conditions.

The development is part of a larger project funded by NASA to build a futuristic airplane that is quieter, more fuel-efficient and impervious to extreme weather.

The plane that Cessna is designing won’t be made of aluminum, like most planes, but composite material that is lighter weight to improve fuel efficiency. The downside of using these materials is that the plane will need an outer layer to protect it from the elements.

“What we’re doing is trying to come up with a set of layers or skins that would provide the ability to absorb impacts, would smooth the outer surface so that you could get low drag, and would conduct electricity so that you could meet the lightning-strike requirements,” said lead Cessna engineer for the NASA contract Vicki Johnson.

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“Right now, we’re at the point of trying to define what are the requirements and what are the potential materials that we might combine in various manners to come up with skins that would meet our requirements,” Johnson told TechNewsDaily.

The high-tech skin that Cessna wants will serve multiple functions and thus likely be made of several layers. For example, a foam layer might be used to protect the plane from bumps and bruises, and a reflective material could help to keep the composite cool.

Another integral part of this magic skin: sensors. “The idea is that there will be a little bit of space available (in the core material), whether it’s a honeycomb core or a foam core, to run wires and to put sensors,” Johnson said. “Those sensors could be there for a lot of different functions.”

For example, sensors in the skin could help monitor the plane’s structure and indicate, for example, whether an object in the air or on the ground has struck the plane.

Such sensors are particularly important for composite planes because a composite could be internally damaged with no visible signs on the outside of the material, Johnson explained.

“Another alternative would be to design the very outer layer so that if there was an impact it would change colors, kind of like a bruise and you would see, uh-oh, something happened here,” he added.

Cessna plans to start testing some of these magic skins this summer and have something ready for NASA in the next two years.

In addition to Cessna, MIT, Boeing and Northrop also split the $16.5 million in additional funding from NASA to continue their individual research into aircraft technologies that are three generations more advanced than what we have today.

 

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