Army Will Support New Research on Air Travel Safety

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Private jet plane in a beautiful skyA research team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will be conducting a study to attempt to make air travel more safe and cost effective. They will focus on expanding the understanding of stress and fatigue and how they cause damage.

Currently, an electrochemical fatigue crack sensor system detects cracks down to 0.01 inches in actual structures. This team will aim to use the knowledge they gain from their studies to make tools and technologies even better.

This technology will eventually be used to find cracks in aircraft, in order to determine when they need to be fixed. Their research will apply to both military and commercial planes.

The United States Army Research Office has provided funding for this project from the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, which is incredibly competitive. They have provided $239,000 for the study, and industry has provided an additional $60,000.

“What we will learn is how the microstructures of these materials influence crack initiation and growth phenomena,” said Anthony Spangenberger ’12, a PhD candidate who joined the iMdc team in 2012. “We can identify damage hot spots in the microstructure that will help us better engineer our materials for optimized structural performance.”

With testing, they will gain knowledge allowing them to develop new metal alloys that are actually crack-resistant. Their technology will also aim to make it so that small cracks don’t continue to get larger after they occur.

“By understanding the behavior of the materials, we can swap out heavier steel components for lighter aluminum alloys, which are going to behave reliably because we will design better for fatigue and crack growth resistance under different operating conditions,” said Spangenberger.

Their new technology will be able to integrate with sensors and help detect and monitor any issues in real time. Right now, planes are only checked from time to time for fatigue and cracking.

“This technology, with its multiple uses, would bring important advancements to the materials and aircraft industries, contribute to increased safety and on-time performance, and undoubtedly save time and money for aircraft operators and, ultimately, the airlines,” said Diana Lados, Milton Prince Higgins II Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering and founding director of the university’s Integrative Materials Design Center (iMdc). “I think this research will go a long way to enhancing the way the aircraft industry views its inspection and monitoring systems.”

Their research will build on what is already known in the industry and improve upon it. Their hope is that this will allow safety and continued effectiveness of aircraft.

“The new instrumentation can be integrated in unique ways with the equipment from our earlier NSF grant,” said Lados. “I expect the combined capabilities and increased flexibility will provide interesting results for damage detection and monitoring in two- and three-dimensions on both laboratory specimens and actual components.”

Lados noted that this technology can be applied to a variety of materials fabricated by both conventional and novel processes and will also play an important role in her team’s work on additive manufacturing, friction-stir welding, cold-spray processing, and rapid product qualification and repair.

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