Nanotechnology is set to drive a revolution in "intelligent avionics" that will help cut aircraft fuel burn and improve safety.
A technology forecast by PricewaterhouseCoopers envisions wireless sensors getting so small that aerospace engineers of the 2020s will be able to embed layers of them in or on components or structures.
So-called "smart dust" promises to revolutionise avionics, by communicating wirelessly from any part of an aircraft to back up avionics systems. PwC emerging technologies director Dr. David Jacobson said: "The layered back-up will reduce the chances of sensor or software failures leading to a shutdown of flight-critical function, without adding weight.
"That means planes could fly with greater safety and using less fuel."
The concept, he said, is an extension of the current trend in avionics design to adaptive control, with increasingly compact sensors more widely distributed to improve the performance of fly-by-wire control systems, which intelligently adjust aircraft control surfaces to a pilot's intended course.
Jacobson said that reaching the smart dust stage depends on electronic component progress continuing to follow "Moore's Law", the axiom stating that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years - an exponential rate of improvement which has held for more than 40 years.
He conceded that many experts believe Moore's Law will reach its limit by 2020, but believes improvement will continue thanks to new materials and ideas like the printable semiconductive polymers known as "smart plastics".
Read PwC's report, "Gaining technological advantage", here