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Rolls Royce reveals a swarm of micro maintenance robots

19/07/2018
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During a press conference at this week’s Farnborough Airshow, Rolls Royce revealed what could be the future of engine maintenance- ‘snake’ robots that work their way through engines like an endoscope, and miniature, collaborative ‘swarm’ robots that crawl through the insides of an engine.
Artist's impression of the Rolls Royce SWARM robot.
(Artist’s impression of the Rolls Royce SWARM robot. Image via Rolls Royce).

The IntelligentEngine vision, as Rolls Royce has named the concept, was first introduced at the Singapore Airshow early in 2018, and describes a world where produce and service have become so closely connected that they are inseparable.

The robotic technologies proposed by Rolls Royce each represent an opportunity to improve the way engine maintenance is delivered, for example by speeding up inspection processes or removing the need to take an engine off an aircraft in order to perform maintenance work. This has the potential to offer significant benefits for end users by reducing the cost of engine maintenance, increasing the availability of an engine and ensuring any maintenance required is completed as quickly as possible.

Rolls Royce’s IntelligentEngine vision consists of four specific robot technologies:

  • SWARM robots- a set of collaborative, miniature robots, each around 10mm in diameter which would be deposited in the centre of an engine via a ‘snake’ robot and would then perform a visual inspection of hard to reach areas by crawling through the engine. These robots would carry small cameras that 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.

  • INSPECT robots- a network of ‘periscopes’ permanently embedded within the engine, enabling it to inspect itself using the periscope cameras to spot and report any maintenance requirements. These pencil-sized robots are thermally protected from the extreme heat generated within an engine and the visual data they create would be used alongside the millions of data points already generated by today’s engines as part of their Engine Health Monitoring Systems.

  • Remote boreblending robots- teams from Rolls Royce and the University of Nottingham have worked together to develop a robotic boreblending machine that can be remotely controlled by specialist engineers. In practice this means that complicated maintenance tasks, such as repairing damaged compressor blades using lasers to grind parts, could be completed by non-expert ‘local’ teams who would simply install the tool in the engine and then hand control of it over to a dedicated expert back in Rolls Royce’s Aircraft Availability Centre who would then direct its work remotely. This removes the need for specialist teams to travel to the location of an aircraft needing maintenance, vastly reducing the time required to return it to service.

  • FLARE- a pair of ‘snake’ robots which are flexible enough to travel through an engine, like an endoscope, before collaborating to carry out patch repairs to damaged thermal barrier coatings. 
  • Artist's impression of the Rolls Royce SWARM robot.
    (Artist’s impression of the Rolls Royce SWARM robot. Image via Rolls Royce).

    Commenting on the robots on display, Dr James Kell, Rolls Royce On-Wing Technology Specialist, said:

    “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.”

    Creating maintenance efficiencies- but at the expense of jobs?

    Whilst these robots represent a remarkable leap-forward with respect to engine maintenance and operation, they could have a negative impact upon inspection and maintenance jobs. After all, if an aviation engine no longer needs to be fully stripped down, and can effectively inspect itself, where does that leave the engine technicians that are the cornerstone of the industry? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…
    Tags: Engineering
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    Rolls Royce reveals a swarm of micro maintenance robots - Time to read 4 min
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