There is a long list of items born as part of the space program that have gone on to everyday use. Memory foam. Ear thermometers. The list goes on. Now, a new safety sensor originally used for spacecraft's wings is adapted by an automaker to improve the safety of its cars.
Thin, flexible foil sensors — known as piezoelectric foil — were developed by European Space Agency engineers to measure pressure during re-entry. The foil converts physical stimuli such as vibration and pressure into electrical pulses that translates into highly accurate data.
It's that highly accurate data that Volkswagen is after. They want to use the sensors to record what happens during their crash testing.
The piezoelectric foil is perfect in many ways. By design it was intended to be thin enough not to induce drag — important on a spacecraft wing and also when covering the entire surface a car during testing.
Add to that the fact that the material is thin and flexible enough that it won't break. Engineers can gain data from crash the foil covered cars in a way they couldn't have with regular sensors that often break on impact.
The strips of foil have thin printed circuit boards on their ends that record the electrical impulses created by the crash. Every dent will be translated into something that can precisely be measured.
That's something very much appreciated by the VW engineers looking for exacting information to translate in back into safety solutions.
VW engineer Jens Weinrich summed it up: "We wanted not just qualitative, but also quantitative results. We wanted to know where it folded, and how much it folded."
That translates to a lot of "folds" that future car owners will probably never have to worry about.