Text Size
Knowing it is Safe
November 19, 2009

bridge over waterApplying a recent Dryden patent might permit officials to know if it is safe to cross a bridge, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, even after an earthquake. Lightweight NASA Technology Can Monitor A Wing's Shape In Flight. It Could Be Used For Building And Bridge Health To Determine If It's Safe To Travel, Even After An Earthquake.

Imagine wind turbine blades whose shape can automatically adjust, in real time, to produce more energy. Or imagine aircraft wings that can stiffen when an aircraft experiences turbulence to save fuel and improve the ride for passengers. At present, the shape of these structures can't be measured in real time and therefore can't adapt to these types of changes in their environment.

Or, imagine civil engineers being able to immediately see and record precise bridge movements along a bridge's braces and spans. Future incidents like the 2007 eight-lane bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minn., might be avoided.

These and other such advances are now possible because of a new technology patented by Dryden engineers.

Recently patented fiber optic-based sensor technology provides a way to easily determine the shape of real world structures in real time.

"It's gratifying to see this patent awarded, which means we can take the next step toward licensing and commercialization so that the technology can be used in the marketplace," says Dryden research engineer Lance Richards, who co-authored the patent application with Dryden's William Ko. "We just want to see this technology used and people benefiting from it."

"This is an exciting opportunity for us to have a patent with such a broad range of potential benefits for the public," said Greg Poteat, Dryden's new technology officer.

"This technology is unique for us in that it can be used commercially, such as in structural safety applications, in a way that Dryden's flight research-specific technology traditionally hasn't been," Poteat said. "Our Technology Transfer office will also be initiating a marketing activity to look for commercial companies that may be interested in licensing the technology."

The shape-sensing technology moved from years of laboratory development and testing to large-scale, dynamic field testing in 2008 when it was flown on Dryden's Ikhana remotely piloted aircraft to measure the change in the aircraft's wing shape in real time, in flight. The effort represented one of the first comprehensive flight validations of fiber optic sensor technology.

In application, a long, hair-thin fiber optic strand is attached to a structure, such as the Ikhana's wings. Every quarter-inch along the fiber, a sensor instantaneously feeds data on the strain and shape of the structure back to a computer. The result is a complete, as-it-happens look at every twist and turn of the structure from literally hundreds of sensors along a single strand of optical fiber attached to it.

"In addition to aerospace applications like some we've tested, the sensors can also be used to look at the stress of other structures, like bridges and dams, and possibilities extend to biomedical uses as well. The applications of this technology are mind-boggling," Richards said.

It's an incredible amount of data, and it doesn't get lost in electronic noise; it all gets displayed in colorful computer graphics fed back to a control system. NASA engineers can measure strain, temperature and displacement changes with it.

The patented technology can be used on wings as well as other complex structures such as re-entry vehicles. For example, NASA is looking at using this technology behind the Constellation program's Orion capsule heat shield in order to see exactly where strain, temperature and structural deformations are occurring even as the capsules re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

"Generations of aircraft and spacecraft could benefit from work with the new sensors since the sensors have performed well, both in the laboratory and now in flight," said Richards.

The weight reduction that fiber optic sensors would make possible could reduce operating costs and improve aircraft fuel efficiency.

The development also opens up new opportunities and applications that would not be achievable with conventional technology. The new sensors, for example, could enable adaptive wing-shape control.

"The sensors on Ikhana are imperceptibly small because they're located on fibers approximately the diameter of a human hair," Richards explained. "You can get the information you need from the thousands of sensors on a few fibers without the weight and complexity of conventional sensors. Strain gages, for example, require three copper lead wires for every sensor and are significantly heavier than optical fiber."

When using the fiber optic sensors, researchers do not require analytical models for determining strain and other measurements because data derived with the sensors include the actual measurements being sought.

Intelligent flight control software technology now being developed can incorporate structural monitoring data from the fiber optic sensors to compensate for stresses on the airframe, helping prevent situations that might otherwise result in a loss of flight control.

By extension, the application of the technology to wind turbines could improve their performance by making their blades more efficient. "An improvement of only a few percent equals a huge economic benefit," Richards said.

NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate funded algorithm and systems development, instrument and ground test validation of the new sensor system.

Image Token: 
Image Token: 
Page Last Updated: August 15th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator