Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) aims to develop, by September, an "intelligent" spacecraft thermal protection tile that is capable of "self-organising" and responding to damage.

The demonstrator will be the first result of a "smart spaces" project that CSIRO believes could lead to the development of an aircraft or space vehicle capable of sensing a fault and repairing itself in flight.

The project has added impetus following the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster which is believed to have been caused by a panel that had been damaged by an unexpected impact, says Dr Geoff James, CSIRO's smart spaces project leader.

The project is aimed at developing the first working smart spaces - intelligent systems, using sensors and actuators, which have the flexibility to deal with unforeseen events and can self-configure, self-repair and adapt to changing conditions. "Smart spaces will supersede today's conventional, massively engineered systems, where every increase in complexity presents fresh opportunities for failure that may be avoided with this new approach," says James.

The smart spaces concept involves a loosely designed system where the parts are designed to be self-organising, which will be more reliable in the long-term, he adds.

CSIRO is working with NASA on the aerospace applications, with the US space agency providing funding and researchers for the project. An unnamed large aerospace manufacturer has expressed interest in the programme, says James. About A$2 million ($1.26 million) has already been spent on the aerospace applications.

Aerospace developments in the programme are part of CSIRO's Ageless Aerospace Vehicle project which was launched in 2001 in conjunction with NASA's Langley Research Center. That project is intended to result in a vehicle that is capable of self-assessment and repair, has adaptive shape control, highly efficient propulsion and is capable of "thinking and sensing".

Source: Flight International