A breakthrough at TWI has led to the creation of a data transfer technology that can be seamlessly incorporated into composite materials to create a high-capacity, resilient data transfer network. SurFlow™ technology uses electromagnetic surface waves to transmit data directly through composite structures. Described as ‘the future of composite data highways’, SurFlow™ removes the need for wires or fibre optics, while also eliminating the remote interception risks associated with conventional ‘wi-fi’ wireless data transfer. SurFlow™ is patented in the UK (GB2522344), the US (US10090715B2) and is awaiting issue of the EU patent. It also won a 2018 Industry Award for Innovation in Composite Design.
SurFlow - Future Composite Data Highways
This new disruptive technology transmits data in the form of electromagnetic waves that travel through composite structures. SurFlow™ integrates a data network into a component’s physical structure by turning the structure’s composite into a ‘smart’ composite and hence eliminating the need for wiring harnesses and fibre optics. The aim is to utilise the existing composite structure whenever possible and make minimum changes in order to make it compatible with SurFlow™. In this manner, the certification process for structures such as aircraft could be expedited. The existing composite structure is evaluated and the modifications are introduced. In the case of next generation structures, the system can be designed to exploit the full potential characteristic advantages of SurFlow™.
Unlike other wireless data transfer methods, this technology is not vulnerable to external interferences as the propagating signal is bound to an interface within the composite and can be shielded from the external environment. Currently, the frequency range that has been tested is 2-6GHz, which can be extended to other frequency ranges as required, depending on the industrial application. The system is capable of transmitting data at up to 3Gbps. In the presence damage in the structure, the signal finds a path around it as long as there is a continuous surface in the structure, which means that the system will continue to function even if the composite part suffers damage. However, small changes in the signal characteristics can be used to identify whether the structure is damaged. Hence, SurFlow™ can also be used for structural health monitoring (SHM) or non-destructive testing (NDT). Furthermore, in the presence of an obstacle changes in the surface wave’s evanescent field changes can be detected, making it useful for proximity sensing.
SurFlow™ addresses the uncertainty of other wireless technologies as well as weight, installation and maintenance complications related to wiring harnesses. Therefore, potential applications for smart composites exist throughout almost every industry sector. For instance, in the aerospace sector, where composites are extensively used, SurFlow™ could significantly reduce the complexity of an aircraft’s internal communications network. In the automotive sector, where the use of composites is now extending beyond high-end applications, this technology can make radical simplifications to the vehicle’s wiring complexity. In robotics, the technology could be used to enable communication throughout a robotic system without the use of wires. Other uses being explored include consumer electronics, where the technology could enable a device to instantly connect to a network simply by making contact with a composite’s surface, without the need for plug-in connections or the detection and connection to a wireless network. SurFlow™ can be used not only for communication but also for real-time composite monitoring, whereby monitoring subtle changes in the waveform allows any damage to a smart composite component to be instantly identified.
You can see more demonstrations of the Surflow technology in the following videos:
Connecting a camera and a monitor
Mechanical robotic applications
Replacing fly-by-wire systems