New microscopic sensors developed in Australia could make aircraft safer, improve the lives of diabetics and help those who rely on prosthetics.

Dr Quyen Do has been developing microscopic sensors that can be used to detect wear and tear in knee replacements.

“The sensor can be incorporated into the knee bearing,” Dr Do said.

“When the load is applied, we can see the measurement from the sensor. If the patient experiences any extreme loading, the doctor can give feedback to the patient to correct things like that.”

Made from carbon nanotubes and polyethylene, these sensors are piezoresistive. This means they can detect a change in electrical resistance when mechanical strain is applied.

The technology is still being developed, and first year PhD student Ruth Poblete is applying the sensors to the insoles of shoes for diabetic patients.

She is part of a cross-institutional team that also includes biomechanics and sports medicine researchers.

One of the complications of diabetes includes nerve damage, otherwise known as diabetic neuropathy, causing a loss feeling in the feet. Left untreated, this can lead to serious injuries and even amputation.

“There are therapeutic shoes that are available in the market to distribute pressure across the feet, but just like any others, they wear out and eventually lose their functionality,” Ms Poblete said.

“This is where I will come in. I would like to develop an insole that would detect pressure and at the same time distribute it across feet.”

Aeronautical engineering expert Professor Sean O’Byrne, a supervisor overseeing both of these projects, has researched how this technology could be used to detect faults in aircraft.

The collaboration between aeronautics and medicine was sparked when an orthopaedic surgeon asked Professor O’Byrne whether emerging aerospace technologies could be applied to prosthetics.

“It was that discussion that led to the idea of making these plastics that sense themselves – a type of smart material,” Professor O’Byrne said.

He said the research is a great example of people with different skill sets working together to solve problems in a variety of different fields.

“Not only is it a collaboration between our research group and the Trauma and Orthopaedics Research Unit at Canberra hospital, but it's also a collaboration between aeronautical engineers like myself and physicists,” Associate Professor O’Byrne said.

The technology could be applied to anything that requires a regular service, he said.