Vehicles could get nerves
Vehicles could one day be able to feel pain, and alert owners when they take damage.Creative Commons

Researchers are working on some kind of a smart material that could be fitted into future vehicles to help them sense damage, similar to how nerves tell the body that it has been injured.

The new research, conducted by scientists at Clemson University and funded by the US Army Research Laboratory, revolves around the idea that magnetically sensitive material would be embedded within several layers of composite materials throughout the vehicle. The system could be used across vehicles including, but not limited to, helicopters, trucks and tanks.

The smart material will be able to sense damage like impacts, cracking and unusual loading. And, just as pain is relayed to the brain, it will also transmit a damage report to a computer that determines whether the vehicle should keep going or return to the depot for maintenance and repairs.

"In the field, we need that self-diagnostic capability," Oliver Myers, a researcher on the project, said in a statement. "Lieutenant Data in Star Trek always says, ''I'm performing to specified parameters.' We want to make sure our platforms are performing to those specified parameters at a minimum."

Vehicles could get nerves
Oliver Myers (right) and mechanical engineering master's student Brandon Williams work with some of the smart material they are developing at Clemson University.Clemson University Relations

According to the scientists, the magnetic material that senses the damage is embedded in the structure itself during the fabrication process, rather than adding sensors after the structure is built. In addition, this smart material requires no power, doesn't weigh a vehicle down and operates in harsh environments.

The material can be even more cost-effective for the Army which typically replaces some parts after a certain amount of time as a safety measure since damages to a vehicle don't always show physically. Embedding sensors, therefore, could make it possible for parts to remain in service longer, based on their condition.

The researchers' team at Clemson has received nearly $1 million from the US Army Research Lab to develop the material, which is expected to be 10 to 20 years away from deployment.