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Ultrasonic screwdriver sniffs out carbon fiber damage, planes book a check-up with The Doctor

Mat Smith, @thatmatsmith
December 25, 2011
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Lighter planes means less fuel, means less money and, hopefully, lower ticket prices. Carbon fiber reinforcements are a major part of this plan; both Boeing's latest bird and the double-decker Airbus make liberal use of the light and strong composite. However, they're not without their own dangers; minute amounts of water can get into the carbon fibers, which then form ice at high altitude, damaging the fiber structures. This sort of miniature damage is -- unlike aluminum versions -- very difficult to spot. Embarrassingly, the engineers' best bet to detect the ruined fibers until recently was to tap on the composite structures with a small hammer and listen for a hollow noise that would signpost water damage.

EADS, which depends on carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) for its own Airbus fuselage, has now created an ultrasonic gun that can detect this damage. This sonic screwdriver is able to detect and visualize these invisible problems by bouncing sound off the plane's surface and, well, it's like that hammer test, but a heck of a lot more precise. The company hopes to ready the device for regular use by the end of next year.

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