The project, which will enable the real-time monitoring of critical components during flight and could make a vital contribution to improved air safety, is joint funded by the UK Technology Board and some of the aerospace industry’s leading companies. With iSLI playing a lead technical role alongside Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, TRW Conekt, QinetiQ Ltd, QM Systems Limited, GE Aviation Systems Ltd, Bombardier Aerospace Belfast, Ultra Electronics BCF, AgustaWestland and Airbus, the WiTNESSS consortium intends to deliver a range of commercial application demonstrators based on the new system by the end of 2011.

“This is a tremendously exciting project. Our development team is delighted to be working alongside some of the most important names in the aerospace business on a prototype system that not only has considerable commercial potential, but is also likely to have a significant impact upon the efficient operation of the whole commercial fleet. The system will give aircraft operators the ability to detect and rectify problems before they lead to serious consequences so ultimately, these systems could make a significant impact on aircraft safety,” said Dr Mark Begbie, director of the Institute for System Level Integration (iSLI).

Work on the first prototype wireless sensing system will begin next month. Designed to gather complex and accurate data from different parts of the aircraft - some of which have to be related to one another - makes the design of the whole system considerably more sophisticated than existing wireless devices. The WiTNESSS system will be used to help identify technical faults, optimise performance and monitor the overall health of the aircraft. Wireless is a key capability to reduce the costs associated with wired sensor cables.

Dr Begbie said: “Putting in cables adds to aircraft cost and, crucially, weight and it’s not the easiest thing to get in and maintain. If you take Rolls-Royce as an example, when it is developing a new engine it can have upwards of 3000 sensors attached when it is on the testbed. Routing all the wires to the sensors and bringing them all back to a collection point is a big job, and when you have got 3000 cables running over a vibrating engine, you get a lot of difficulty with drop-outs. So Rolls-Royce wants us to look at how the wireless technology can help.”

The three-year project will initially see the system developed for lifetime maintenance functions; helping retain a national lead in a business worth over £6.13bn to the UK in 2006 alone. There is follow on potential for subsequent systems to look at predictive maintenance and ultimately real-time data for safety-critical components. The system is also expected to be of great use in the carbon fibre components being developed to replace aluminium aircraft parts, where sensors can be used to help monitor how they are coping with high pressures and heavy loads and allow manufacturers to get better information about super-structural capacity and the life expectancy of each component.

iSLI will retain substantial intellectual property rights emerging from the system, and expects to see the technology exploited by a variety of sectors in the future. The institute is already in discussions with Strathclyde University’s Institute of Medical Devices over forming a consortium of healthcare experts, technology providers and manufacturers with a view to developing the system further, while further opportunities have also been identified in the renewable energy industry. 

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