Professor Christoph Bruecker
A new five-year research project to develop tiny hair-like sensors for use on the surface of aircraft is set to improve the control and sustainability of future aviation.

Professor Christoph Bruecker holds the Research Chair in Nature-Inspired Sensing and Flow Control for Sustainable Transport at City, University of London, from March 2017. Supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and BAE Systems, the research aims to develop an aerodynamic ‘skin’ that can be evaluated for use on future aircraft.

The research will bring together hundreds of tiny transparent ‘micro-pillars’ with optical fibres on an aerodynamic surface, providing a way to measure airflow around the surface with much more detail and precision than the relatively few sensors currently found on aircraft. By using an elastic material for the hair-like micro-pillars, the sensors can also flex in response to the airflow, allowing them to be used not just as passive sensors but for flight control, adapting to changing external conditions and providing finer control of an aircraft.

Using optical fibre technology also means that, unlike current sensors, the micro-pillars would not generate electromagnetic waves, allowing them to keep control even in harsh environments.

Applications for the smart skin technology could extend beyond aircraft. As the micro-pillars can adapt to changing conditions they not only change the aerodynamic properties of a surface – for example, by reducing drag – but also its acoustic signature, so they could be used on wind turbine blades and other propeller systems. Such detailed flow measurement and control could also be useful inside pipelines or on marine hydrofoils.

Professor Bruecker commented:

“The aim is not to copy nature, but to be inspired by it. By understanding the physical principles underlying natural flight, such as the structure of feathers and hairs, we can learn to improve our own systems. The detailed information provided by hair-like structures gives a much better understanding of a local flow situation, which the structures can then modify to improve aerodynamic control.

“I’m grateful for the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering and BAE Systems, whose collaboration means that the skin can be tested for real future concepts in aviation and marine transport.”

Maureen McCue, Head of Research and Technology at BAE Systems’ military aircraft business added:

“We believe that bio-inspired research will continue to provide important technological benefits for military and civil aircraft. Professor Bruecker and his team are world experts in this field and we are delighted to continue our support of their work at City, University of London.”

Professor Sir James McDonald FREng FRSE, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Committee, said:

“Inspired by nature, Professor Bruecker’s research will engineer solutions to sensing and control in a whole new way, which could significantly improve the fuel efficiency and sustainability of aircraft – a major benefit to both the industry and to society. This exciting work should impact positively on sectors including aerospace, energy and bulk fluid transfer. The Royal Academy of Engineering is proud to support Professor Bruecker’s work as a new Research Chair.”

City University also hosts the BAE Systems Sir Richard Olver Engineering Lecture on 29 March at which the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, will speak on the subject of industrial strategy.

Notes for editors

  1. About City, University of London
    City, University of London is a global institution committed to academic excellence, with a focus on business and the professions and an enviable central London location.

    It is the top higher education institution in London for student satisfaction (The Complete University Guide), is ranked 18th overall in the United Kingdom (Guardian University Guide) and is among the top five per cent of universities in the world (Times Higher Education World Rankings).

    City has around 19,500 students (46% at postgraduate level) from more than 150 countries and staff from over 75 countries.  More than 130,000 former students from over 180 countries are members of the City Alumni Network. City’s academic range is broadly-based with world-leading strengths in business; law; health sciences; mathematics; computer science; engineering; social sciences; and the arts including journalism and music.

    The University’s history dates from 1894, with the foundation of the Northampton Institute on what is now the main part of City’s campus.  In 1966, City was granted University status by Royal Charter and the Lord Mayor of London became its Chancellor.  In September 2016, City joined the University of London federation and HRH the Princess Royal became City’s Chancellor. Professor Sir Paul Curran has been Vice-Chancellor and President of City since 2010.
  2. About BAE Systems
    At BAE Systems, our advanced defence technology protects people and national security, and keeps critical information and infrastructure secure. We search for new ways to provide our customers with a competitive edge across the land, air, sea and cyber domains. We employ a skilled workforce of 83,100 people in over 40 countries, and work closely with local partners to support economic development by transferring knowledge, skills and technology.
  3. Royal Academy of Engineering
    As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession

For more information please contact:

Aaron Boardley at the Royal Academy of Engineering

T: 020 7766 0655
E: Aaron Boardley