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SPIE DCS 2017: fiber sensors tipped for missions to Mars

12 Apr 2017

Anaheim conference hears of myriad future applications for the optical technology in space exploration.

by Ford Burkhart in Anaheim
From aiding heart surgery on an astronaut visiting Mars to ultrafast sensing of a mining operation blast, a session on fiber-optic sensors at SPIE’s Defense + Commercial Sensing (DCS) event looked forward to a wide and radical range of future applications for the erstwhile photonics technology.

Eric Udd, president of the specialist team at Columbia Gorge Research in Oregon, kicked off the session in Anaheim, California, with a review of his 40 years working on fiber-optic gyroscopes - matching the span of the field itself.

Structural health monitoring
Today, the sensors are made by a veritable "who’s who" of blue-chip companies including the likes of Northrup Grumman, Honeywell, Japan Aviation, BAE Systems, and KVH Industries.

“Any parameter in the physical environment you can measure with fiber sensors - rotation, strain, temperature, pressure, vibration, acoustics, moisture, corrosion, chemical content, acceleration,” Udd said. “You can pull the information back and use it to support the health of a structure.”

In fact, the rovers already on Mars all use fiber-based gyros for positioning and stabilization. The sensors perform tasks that support all manner of activity, like spectrometry, optical inspection, and chemical analysis.

And if a future human habitat in space one day suffers a micro-meteorite strike, those fiber sensors could check out the damage, and might even help to seal up the hole with some robotic assistance.

Similarly, such sensors could check on a solar-powered transmission station, monitoring currents and performance. They could help reposition solar cells, and perform any command and sensing functions, Udd said.

As our colonization of space draws closer, fiber sensors will be crucial for putting robots in place, “pre-staging” towards eventual human colony missions, helping to move construction equipment into place, carry out reconnaissance, pointing and stabilizing orbiting satellites, Udd continued.

If and when humans do arrive, the devices could even help physicians carry out surgeries that they were not expert at, he postulated.

Planes, bridges and pipelines
Back on Earth, applications abound. Strain-sensing versions are embedded in bridges to check on the need for maintenance, others in electric power monitoring, or embedded into construction or manufacturing materials including composites.

They are used to monitor the Alaska oil pipeline for leaks, every 50 miles, and in fracking operations help to make gas extraction safer.

Aerospace is another key area, with newer multiplexed devices effectively creating thousands of sensors across a single aircraft wing. “You simply can’t do that with electronics, with the huge bundles of wires needed,” Udd said. The fiber sensors can be embedded in carbon epoxy or a titanium metal matrix, without affecting strength of the materials.

About the Author

Ford Burkhart is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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