Rolls-Royce mini-maintenance robots can crawl inside engines

Written by: Tom Austin-Morgan | Published:

Rolls-Royce has unveiled a range of four robotic solutions that it says will revolutionise engine maintenance.

As part of its IntelligentEngine project, Rolls-Royce engineers have teamed up with academics from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University to demonstrate how robotics could be used in the maintenance of future engines. The designs ranged from ‘snake’ robots that work their way through the engine like an endoscope, to miniature, collaborative ‘swarm’ robots that crawl through the insides of an engine.

The robotic technologies each represent an opportunity to improve the way engine maintenance is delivered, for example by speeding up inspection processes or by removing the need to take an engine off an aircraft to perform maintenance work. The potential benefits of these solutions include reducing the cost of engine maintenance, increasing the availability of an engine and ensuring any maintenance required is completed as quickly as possible.

Richard Goodhead, Rolls-Royce, senior vice president – marketing, said: “By exploring how we might use the rapid progress we are seeing in fields such as digital and robotics, we are ensuring that Rolls-Royce will continue to lead the way in service innovation, offering the very best value for our customers.”

The technologies include a set of collaborative, miniature beetle-like SWARM robots, each around 10mm in diameter which would be deposited in the heart of an engine via a ‘snake’ robot and would perform visual inspection of hard to reach areas by crawling through the engine. These robots would provide a live video feed back to the operator allowing them to complete a rapid visual inspection of the engine without having to remove it from the aircraft.

The ‘snake’ robots that will deliver the swarm robots are based on a similar project called ‘FLARE’, a robot that is flexible enough to travel through an engine, like an endoscope to carry out patch repairs to damaged thermal barrier coatings.

Another project that is closer to operational deployment is called remote boreblending. These machines can be installed into the engine by non-expert ‘local’ teams and remotely controlled by specialist engineers at Rolls-Royce’s Aircraft Availability Centre to carry out complicated maintenance tasks, such as repairing damaged compressor blades using lasers to grind parts. This removes the need for specialist teams to travel to the location of an aircraft needing maintenance, reducing the time required to return it to service.

Finally, and the furthest from commercialisation, is a project called INSPECT, where robotic periscope cameras are permanently embedded within the engine, enabling it to inspect, spot and report any maintenance requirements. These robots will work within the engine in-flight and as such will need extreme thermal protection to withstand the heat generated within a jet engine.

Dr James Kell, Rolls-Royce, on-wing technology specialist, added: “While some of these technologies, such as the SWARM robots, are still a long way from becoming an everyday reality, others, such as the remote boreblending robot, are already being tested and will begin to be introduced over the next few years. We have a great network of partners who support our work in this field and it is clear that this is an area with the potential to revolutionise how we think about engine maintenance.”

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