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I read a news item recently . According to the article, the wingtip of an Airbus A-320 collided with the left wing of an A-330 while on the taxiway at Mumbai airport. The A-320 (VT-IFP) experience a damaged sharklet. The collision was observed by a passenger and then shared with the aircraft staff (flight attendants I guess) who informed the captain. The plane was led to a hangar, passengers de-boarded and sent on other plane/s by the airline.

What I want to know is: aren't there any sensors which can detect an impact and give/share that information to the pilot? I do understand that the airplane takes a lot of jerk and movement during takeoff and landing as well as during turbulence.

But when damage as such as the one described above happens, why isn't there some automated system that could inform the pilot instead of having to rely on a passenger's keen eyes?

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  • $\begingroup$ VT-IFP is the identifier for the specific aircraft $\endgroup$ – Federico Dec 1 '16 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ You can put everywhere sensors which send a simple-keep alive signal over cables, but you will receive just a lot of false-positives and add a lot of weight. It is just simpler, to build better planes. For this kind of detection you will need some sort of fault tolerant advanced composite material with a generic interface, which can detects it's status and report it itself. And even then, should they able to report "scratches"? $\endgroup$ – Peter Dec 1 '16 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ Related $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 1 '16 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ VT-IFP is the aircraft's registration. The prefix VT indicates that it was registered in India. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Dec 2 '16 at 0:05
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This is related to an answer I gave here about why aircraft typically do not have mirrors and external cameras.

Short answer: yes aircraft do have sensors to detect damage, but not the kind of damage you're talking about.

Long answer: to design or decide what sensors to put on the aircraft and where, we have to get started with failure modes. There are at least a million way for components to fail, however, some failure are more likely to occur than others.

Do we have sensors which detect failures / abnormal situations? We do! We have sensors for control surfaces, hydraulics, gears, tire pressure, cabin pressure, engine temperature, oil pressure etc.

Here is an image of one of the cockpit screens on a Boeing: enter image description here

(source)

OK, so why not more sensors?

Because sensors can fail. Now that would be a nightmare to troubleshoot: the sensor says the right outer landing light is not illuminated. Is that true? Let me exit the aircraft and take a look......

It turns out that:

  1. Many failure modes are "internal", e.g. a valve malfunctioning. They are invisible on the exterior of an aircraft.
  2. Aircraft rarely collide with any other objects.
  3. Relying on visual indication is actually a good thing, because it is reliable and it's free.
  4. Building an array of sensors covering each skin on the aircraft would be extremely complex, the construction cost would be high and the system would be heavy.
  5. Sensors are just another component of the system. The more sensors, the more likely something will fail. At some point one has to trust the underlying component to function without relying on system indications.

Perhaps this is the kind of system you have in mind:

enter image description here (Screenshot of "Stealth" (2005), 01:01:11)

Nah, that's just Hollywood artistic license.

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  • $\begingroup$ You may complete your (quite good) answer by expanding the failure modes you are talking about. $\endgroup$ – Manu H Dec 1 '16 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the plural of "aircraft" is "aircraft". $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Dec 1 '16 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ The one collision damage sensor that airplanes sometimes have is a tailstrike sensor, to detect the tail hitting the runway during takeoff or landing. $\endgroup$ – Mark Dec 2 '16 at 3:18

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