EADS and TU Wien developing wireless aircraft sensors powered by thermoelectric modules; no cables or batteries
Researchers from EADS and Technische Universität Wien (Vienna University of Technology) have developed and tested thermoelectric Energy Harvester Modules to supply wireless aircraft sensor nodes with electrical power. The combination of the two eliminates the need for batteries and cables.
Sensor networks attached to an aircraft fuselage will in the future record and transmit essential data concerning the structural health of the aircraft. Traditionally, wired sensor solutions are used, which are reliable, but introduce weight and increase the design complexity of an aircraft.
To solve this challenging task EADS Innovation Works and Vienna University of Technology are partnering in developing a thermoelectric “Energy Harvesting Module” just a few centimeters in outer diameter, which will supply sufficient energy to the wireless sensor nodes.
|Flight test setup for the Energy Harvester Modules. the Click to enlarge.|
The artificial temperature difference created when the aircraft takes off and lands is sufficient to generate the required electrical energy. A flight test campaign on an Airbus aircraft with these Energy Harvesting Modules has been successfully performed.
Maintenance is one of the largest expenses—along with air crew salaries, fuel costs and depreciation—a civil aviation company has to incur over the lifetime of an aircraft and can be as high as 20% of its total cost. The autonomous wireless sensor nodes will monitor the health status of an aircraft and wirelessly transmit the data to the maintenance system of the aircraft.
Such a system obviously has major advantages, however, the main problem lies in the energy supply. Conventional batteries are not designed for such large temperature difference to which an aircraft is continuously exposed during operation. In addition, nobody wants to regularly replace all the sensor batteries in the complete aircraft. Using conventional cabling, on the other hand, would significantly increase the weight of the aircraft.—Prof. Ulrich Schmid from the Institute of Sensor and Actuator Systems at TU Wien
Together with EADS Innovation Works, Prof. Schmid has developed an approach to harvest electrical energy for the sensor nodes directly from the temperature changes present at fuselage of an aircraft during operation.
The outer hull of an aircraft undergoes a massive temperature change during take-off and landing, so that temperature differences occur on the fuselage.
We can make optimal use of these temperature gradients by attaching a small thermal mass to one side of the thermoelectric generator. A water reservoir of about ten cubic centimeters freezes during take-off. It cools down at a slower rate than the fuselage, thus a thermoelectric generator located between these components creates electricity from that temperature difference.—Alexandros Elefsiniotis, one of Prof. Schmid’s PhD students
Inversely, during landing procedure, the fuselage temperature of the aircraft is warmer than that of the water reservoir and hence, energy is again generated. A tailored low-power management system ensures that the voltage output strongly varying in time is converted into constant and appropriate voltage levels, which can drive a sensor node most efficiently.
The start of the project involved simulations and climate chamber experiments. Based on these promising results, EADS Innovation Works has recently carried out the first test flights with Energy Harvesting Modules on an Airbus aircraft. The team has been able to obtain around 23 joules of energy per flight—sufficient to power up a wireless sensor node, according to Elefsiniotis.
Depending on the outside temperature, it is possible that alternative materials other than water could be more suitable—research is currently ongoing into appropriate strategies for extreme situations, for example for flight routes in very cold regions.