A new compact sensor configuration comprising a single transmitter and multi-receivers (STMR) is presented for the in situ structural health monitoring (SHM) of large plate-like isotropic structures. The STMR exploits the long-range propagation characteristics of ultrasonic guided Lamb waves and a phase reconstruction algorithm to provide defect detection and location capability under non-dispersive as well as dispersive regimes of guided waves. Simulations are performed on defect-free and defective finite plates of aluminum to demonstrate the various features of the STMR system. Experiments were carried out on 1mm thick aluminum plates initially using a pair of individual sensors and subsequently using a prototype STMR array. The simulated results of the STMR performance were validated well through these experiments. Features of the STMR system such as its small footprint, the relatively simple data acquisition and processing discussed here have applications in the SHM of plate-like structures, and particularly of aerospace structures. © 2006 IOP Publishing Ltd.