Engineers at Scotland’s Institute for System Level Integration (iSLI) have begun work on the development stage of a £3.3 M project to design a wireless sensor system set to become a standard feature of the next generation of commercial aircraft. 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 jointly 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 Ltd., 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.

The three-year project will initially see the system developed for lifetime maintenance functions and work on the first prototype wireless sensing system has begun. 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 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. Also, wireless is a key capability to reduce the costs associated with wired sensor cables.

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.