Last week, Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences unveiled new research detailing how helicopters, tanks and other vehicles could someday be made of “smart materials” that sense damage, similar to how nerves tell the body it has been injured.

The idea behind the research is that magnetically sensitive material would be embedded within the smart material throughout the vehicle and act as a sensor that says, “Ouch! We have damage here,” said Oliver Myers, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson.

Just as pain is relayed to the brain, the damage report would go to a computer and help determine whether a vehicle should keep going or return to the depot.

Myers is receiving $993,492 from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to lead the project. The research could help the Army save money on rotorcraft maintenance, said Asha Hall, the lead co-principal investigator and Prognostics and Diagnostics acting team lead in the Mechanics Division of the Vehicle Technology Directorate at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

As a safety measure, the Army replaces some parts based on how long they have been in service, whether they appear damaged or not, she said. According to Hall, embedded sensors could make it possible for parts to remain in service longer, based on their condition.

“We’re trying to extend that maintenance-free operating period,” Hall said. “The big, big impact is to reduce sustainment costs for the Army.”

The team is sandwiching “magnetostrictive” material between multiple layers of composite materials, creating a laminate. The magnetostrictive material responds to a magnetic field or a change in stress, allowing it to act as the nerve that senses the damage.

“The composite laminate effectively becomes a smart structure,” Myers said.

The types of damage it could detect include impacts, cracking and unusual loading. Myers said the research was inspired by his master’s work in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), where he studied under the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program. That’s when he began playing with the idea of embedding materials in composite structures to see if damage could be detected. At the time, he did it on a small scale.

Deployment to the field could be 10-20 years away, but Myers aims to move the research in that direction. The central question Myers is asking is how the team can create a “robust sensing operation” using the embedded magnetostrictive material. Robust would mean it is observable, repeatable, measurable and sustainable, he said.