A new sensor can detect ice accumulation on airplane wings in real-time

Ice forming on an aircraft can be dangerous. If it forms on the wing or tailplane surfaces that it can destroy the lift, and hence it is the leading cause of aircraft crashes. Ice detection systems are generally based on visual detection and are, therefore, susceptible to human error and environmental conditions.

To address this, researchers have developed a new sensor that can detect ice accumulation in real-time and could be used to boost airline safety and efficiency. The sensor is the collaborative effort of the two research team from the University of British Columbia‘s Okanagan School of Engineering.

The device called a planar microwave resonator sensor could detect the precise moment when ice begins to form on a surface. It uses microwave resonators to instantly detect the formation of ice that may not be visible to pilots or ground crews.

The planar microwave sensors basically consist of metal deposited onto plastic, and yet they are mechanically robust, sensitive, and easy to fabricate.

In short, it works by measuring how the resonance frequency, amplitude, and scattering pattern of an emitted microwave are altered by any water, frost, or ice present on its surface. During the lab test, the resonator detected frost formation within seconds after the sensor was cooled below freezing.

On the contrary, the human observers took two minutes at -10 C for the frost to become visible on the resonator with the naked eye. That was one small area in ideal lab conditions, then of course spotting all of the ice on an entire wing in an outdoor setting would be considerably harder. Additionally, the resonator device is also able to detect when ice has reverted back to liquid water, so it could also be used to confirm that de-icing operations have worked successfully.

The team says in the recent demonstration, the Planar microwave resonator sensor shows significant performance in sensing, monitoring, and characterizing solid, liquid, and gaseous materials. Research on the detection of ice and frost has not been undertaken until now, according to the team, despite the clear benefits of real-time, sensitive, and robust ice detection for transportation and safety applications.

This is a brand-new method for detecting ice formation quickly and accurately,” says Assistant Professor Mohammad Zarifi. “Radiofrequency and microwave technology can even be made wireless and contactless. I wouldn’t be surprised if airlines start adopting technology even for this upcoming winter.

The researchers have recently published their research findings in Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical.

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