In the United States, many civil, aerospace, and military aircraft are nearing the end of their service life. Many of these service life predictions were determined by models that were created at the time of the design of the structure, possibly decades ago. As a precaution, these structures are inspected on a regular basis with techniques that tend to be expensive and laborious, such as tear-down inspections of aircraft. To complicate matters, new complex materials have been incorporated in recent structures to take advantage of their desirable properties, but these materials sustain damage in a manner that is different from that of past monolithic materials. One example is fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites, which are heterogeneous, direction-dependent, and tend to manifest damage internal to their laminate structure, thus making the detection of this damage nearly impossible. For these reasons, numerous groups have focused on developing sensors that can be applied to or embedded within these structures to detect this damage. Some of the most promising of these approaches include using piezoelectric materials as passive or active ultrasonic sensors and actuators, fiber optic-based sensors to measure strain and detect cracking, and carbon nanotube-based sensors that can detect strain and cracking. These are mostly point-based sensors that are accurate at the location of application but require interpolative methods to ascertain the structural health elsewhere on the structure. To conduct direct damage detection across a structure, we have coupled the ability to deposit a carbon nanotube thin film across large substrates with a spatially distributed electrical conductivity measurement methodology called electrical impedance tomography. As indicated by previous research on carbon nanotube thin films, the electrical conductivity of these films changes when subjected to strain or become damaged. Our structural health monitoring strategy involves monitoring for changes in electrical conductivity across an applied CNT thin film, which would indicate damage. In this work, we demonstrate the ability of the Electrical Impedance Tomography (EIT) methodology to detect, locate, size, and determine severity of damage from impact events subjected to glass fiber-reinforced polymer composites. This will demonstrate the value and effectiveness of this next-generation structural health monitoring approach.

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