Featured image: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Seven Innovations Making Aircraft Components Smarter

DALLAS — The aviation industry has always been at the forefront of technology. Now, as attention around aircraft safety and sustainability has grown, there’s more pressure to innovate than ever. Consequently, while aerospace is far from lagging in tech adoption, it’s ripe for disruption nonetheless.

Several technology-driven changes are on the horizon for aircraft components. Here’s a closer look at some of the most promising that could redefine the future of air travel.

1. Novel Materials

Some of the most exciting innovations in this space deal less with the components themselves and more with what they’re made of. Recent advances in synthetic materials could imbue aircraft parts with new characteristics for improved performance and safety.

Shape-memory alloys are an excellent example. These metals can change their configuration in response to temperature fluctuations or electric currents. Consequently, NASA researchers have found they can modify wing design to significantly improve fuel efficiency by reducing drag in real-time. Alternatively, shape-memory alloys could reduce cabin noise or improve component strength.

Other material innovations offer lighter-weight but stronger alternatives to conventional metals. Some, like piezoelectric materials, enable lower-power circuitry to automate vibration damping or real-time structural health monitoring. Still, others could enable more sustainable aircraft manufacturing by reducing reliance on destructive mining processes.

2. Digital Twins

Digital twins are another technology seeing rapid results in the aviation sector. Virtual models of aircraft components are far from new, but digital twins have the added feature of real-world data integration. This connection to the physical world—often in real-time—unlocks several advantages.

Digital twins enable accurate testing with fewer resources, streamlining the design phase without sacrificing performance and safety standards. The conjunction of efficiency and in-depth analysis means it’s easier to refine optimal aircraft components without increasing development costs. Consequently, more reliable parts become increasingly accessible.

Aerospace engineers can also create digital twins of the entire aircraft to simulate how separate components act together. These simulations make it easier to spot potential issues for safer plane design before they emerge in the real world.

UTC Aerospace Systems’ Smart Probe aims to replace pitot tube sensors. Photo: UTC

3. Smart Sensors

It’s challenging to discuss digital twins without referencing their related technology: smart sensors. Internet of Things (IoT) endpoints are crucial for digital twins in that they provide the necessary real-world data, but their applications in aerospace go beyond these simulations.

Smart sensors can monitor components throughout an aircraft to gauge their performance in real time.  These devices can alert pilots when conditions fall out of the spectrum of normal operations—such as an engine overheating or part of the fuselage vibrating too much. The crew can then respond quickly and effectively to prevent more dramatic problems.

Some of these real-time alerts will mitigate in-flight disasters from unexpectedly malfunctioning components. Most of the time, though, they’ll prevent these incidents by enabling more informed maintenance. Smart sensors can detect repair concerns before they cause larger issues, letting airlines service the plane appropriately before experiencing a severe malfunction.

4. Machine Learning

These sensors are even more impactful when aircraft use machine learning to analyze information. Data itself requires interpretation to lead to successful strategies. Machine learning can, in many cases, provide that analysis faster and more accurately than humans.

Onboard AI algorithms can analyze data from all an aircraft’s components to get a complete, in-depth picture of the plane’s health and performance. Based on real-time trends, they can then predict likely future events to inform needed maintenance stops or flight adjustments. Some organizations claim these insights reduce flight delays by 30% and unscheduled component removals by 20%.

Machine learning can also help in the component design phase. Automated virtual testing features can predict a component design’s real-world performance to suggest needed changes. As a result, engineers can create more reliable, high-functioning parts with fewer prototype iterations.

5. RFID Component Tags

When components fail, airlines must be able to trace their origin to understand the issue. Radio frequency ID (RFID) tags provide that insight.

RFID tags transmit information like a part’s serial number, manufacturing date, and factory of origin to improve traceability. They’re also remarkably small and flat, allowing them to fit within existing aerospace labels, which are often no larger than 24 inches in one dimension. Consequently, there’s no tradeoff between transparency and aircraft weight.

Tracing each component with RFID tags offers more visibility into the supply chain and maintenance records. Ongoing future repair schedules and part audits become simpler and more accurate as a result.

6 kW Hall thruster in operation. Photo: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, nasa.gov, Public Domain

6. Blockchain Tracking Solutions

Blockchain tracking takes RFID’s traceability a step further. Counterfeit aircraft parts have become increasingly prominent, raising the demand for more quality assurance and transparency in the supply chain. While blockchain is still a developing technology, it shows promise.

Records on the blockchain are transparent to all authorized users but virtually impossible to change once they’ve been recorded. Every action on a blockchain creates such a record. Applying this technology to aerospace supply chains would make clear, reliable paper trails of where every component comes from and how it arrived at its end use.

Storing manufacturing, transport, and repair records on the blockchain would shed needed light on the murky waters of aircraft production. The industry could then offer passengers more assurance of their safety by fighting supply chain fraud.

7. Electric Propulsion

Electric airplane propulsion is another new but promising technology. While aviation accounts for just 2% of energy-related emissions, it has grown faster than any other transportation category. Electrification could end that trend.

Batteries may be the primary technology for electric road vehicles, but hydrogen fuel cells show more potential for aviation electrification. This is partly because batteries are typically too heavy to be practical for long flights. Fuel cells are also more efficient than batteries or fossil fuel engines, enabling longer flight times with no emissions other than water.

Fuel cells are still too expensive and the logistics around hydrogen fuel need to be simplified for hydrogen-powered flight to be feasible. However, many companies are researching this field, and hybrid solutions may pave the way for cleaner flights in the meantime.

Smart Tech Could Revolutionize Aviation

These seven technologies are a sample of the innovations driving change in aircraft components. The entire aviation industry will become safer, cleaner and more reliable as more manufacturers and airlines embrace them.

Many of these technologies are still in their early stages, but innovation is happening at an exponential rate. It won’t be long before smart tech like this reshapes the industry.

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