Dr Kiran Harish • 31.03.21 •  3 mins

Advanced sensors: a new roadmap

Technology roadmaps are a key focus for ATI’s collaborative working groups.

The ATI works with industry through its working groups to further develop the roadmaps set out in the UK aerospace technology strategy ati-technology-strategy. The Systems and Equipment Working Group has developed a roadmap on advanced sensors, as one of the key areas of focus within the Systems priority area. This blog provides a narrative around the Advanced-sensors-roadmap.

What are the drivers for adoption of advanced sensors in aircrafts?

Aircraft developments address challenges including the continuing requirements for energy efficiency, emissions and environmental impact, capability, safety, security, and cost. Safety remains the priority given the anticipated growth in air vehicle traffic and sensing is key to managing the system to provide the required level of safety.

The result of these top-level challenges leads to systems requirements (across air vehicle and mission) including reliability, integration, weight, autonomy, fuel switching (e.g., to sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen), materials changes, human health and human machine interface, and changes in navigation, mission, air vehicle and flight control.

The requirement to advance substantially further, for example in a reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gases means that the incremental improvements of the last decades will not deliver sufficient improvement if simply continued in the same pattern. The next steps are likely to require changes in overall systems of control, much deeper integration at an aircraft system and transport system level, and potentially will include radical changes to things as fundamental as the basis of the fuel source for the aircraft. Industry is likely to see increased capability advantage from sensor integration into a software cloud for aircrew integration with flexible degrees of human interaction. A key challenge will be associated with processing capability in the sensor ‘head’ versus ‘platform’ processing capability.

Advanced sensors are likely to be needed to address gaps affordably and reliably in capability to measure more parameters, in richer detail, and under harsher conditions and in addition, mission sensors are likely to contribute to multiple aircraft functions beyond a specific application.

What sensor technologies are required to satisfy the envisaged aircraft application needs?

It is envisaged that the aircraft of the future will see increasing adoption of the Internet of Aircraft Things, with sensors and actuators communicating continuously with data processing systems in the air and on the ground. The expected benefits are greater safety, reduced operational costs, reduced travel time and increased passenger comfort.

Dissimilarity will be a key driver from a safety aspect to provide the right information at the right time and to avoid common mode failures.

Improved equipment systems and engine health monitoring through the remit of real time smart sensors providing data back to the OEM/user on its operational state to confirm it is good, needs maintenance or needs replacing.

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology will provide sensor solutions for a range of measurement parameters (e.g. pressure, proximity, temperature, inertial sensing). The benefit of MEMS technology is the small form factor, enabling sensing systems to meet reduced weight and space envelopes.

Wireless sensing will also be an important aspect of the connected aircraft. This will increase cybersecurity risks, which will need to be addressed.

Finally, fibre-optic technology is seen as the next generation in flight control systems. Fly-by-light (FBL) systems offer weight, size, and very wide bandwidth benefits. To take advantage of these benefits cost effective solutions and agreement on standards will be required.

These systems will be required to work at extremes of temperatures and will requires advances in emerging sensing technologies including electronics.

What are the barriers and challenges in integrating and adopting advanced sensors for aircraft applications?

As the envelope of sensing is pushed in terms of performance and requirements for reduced C-SWaP (cost, size, weight and power consumption), significant advances are required in fundamental sensing technologies, which are highly multidisciplinary (pure sciences including physics, chemistry, and engineering disciplines- mechanical, electronics, systems), and the integration of these technologies to deliver sensing systems for diverse applications within the aircraft.

There is then a significant challenge with maturing these technologies to perform reliably and accurately in a harsh aerospace environment, extreme system physical states, and be qualified as such, to convince air vehicle manufacturers that these are solutions to solving their problems.

There is the challenge of industrialising the manufacturing process for quality, rate, and cost optimisation. This is further complicated by the increasing demands for deeper integration into aircraft component and subsystem design, with the packaging, assembly, and installation process key.

New entrants to aerospace, who have developed advanced sensors, need to address the strong market position of incumbent vendors in the existing aircraft supply chain.  Engaging with professional networks, jointly exploring, and collaborating on new ideas, can open opportunities to enhance or disrupt the existing supply chain. We encourage industry colleagues to get in touch with us to find out more about the ATI Programme and to discuss potential R&T projects in advanced sensors.


The ATI would like to thank Ian Macafee, Martin Dobson, Neil Price, Julie Falconer, Steve Dennison and Edward Goddard for their expertise, time and effort in developing the roadmap and compiling this blog.