A system that allows the exterior of aircraft to “feel” damage or injury in a way similar to human skin is in development by BAE Systems.
The British defence contractor said the technology, which works by covering the entire body of a plane with tens of thousands of micro-sensors, is able to detect problems before they occur.
The devices could measure wind speed, temperature, strain and movement.
One analyst said the innovation could prove useful “far beyond the military”.
Senior research scientist Lydia Hyde, who came up with the technology, says the idea came to her while watching her tumble dryer, which uses a sensor to prevent overheating.
“Observing how a simple sensor can be used to stop a domestic appliance overheating got me thinking about how this could be applied to my work and how we could replace bulky, expensive sensors with cheap, miniature, multi-functional ones,” she said.
“This in turn led to the idea that aircraft, or indeed cars and ships, could be covered by thousands of these motes creating a ‘smart skin’ that can sense the world around them and monitor their condition by detecting stress, heat or damage.”
The sensors, which might be as small as dust particles and have their own power source, could even be sprayed on to an aircraft like paint, BAE said.
Jennifer Cole, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) think tank, told the BBC the technology could help stave off natural disasters or everyday annoyances.
“It could help equipment and technology to ‘report back’ on local environmental conditions and alert users to when repairs are needed ahead of schedule if hairline cracks are detected early, for example on flood defences and dams.
“Or it could enable water pipes to ‘switch on’ heating elements automatically during a particularly cold winter that would prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.”
She added: “If similar technology could be applied to cars, it could revolutionise MOT schedules and potentially reduce road accidents.”