Rolls Royce - mini-robots

Rolls Royce: are miniature robots the future of engine maintenance?

Jennifer Weitbrecht
4 minutes

There’s so much going on in the robotics industry. Rolls-Royce is currently collaborating with Harvard University and the University of Nottingham on an exciting innovation, a development that could revolutionise engine inspections.

Faster and cheaper, thanks to miniature robots

The idea behind it is simple: in future miniature robots will be used for maintenance work in engines. In many cases this would mean that it would no longer be necessary to dismantle the engines from the aircraft. This innovation has major potential as inspections and maintenance could be undertaken much more quickly and cost-effectively, which could result in the increased availability of the engines.

Rolls-Royce is working on four versions of the miniature robots

Rolls-Royce is currently pursuing four ideas for miniature robots together with the two universities.

SWARM robots

These are small, four-legged robots with a carbon fibre-reinforced plastic base, which can be inserted into an engine by what is known as a snake robot. They are designed to autonomously work their way through engines without human intervention. Equipped with cameras, they can transmit images from the inside of the engine to an operator and the hope is that they will be capable of accessing hard-to-reach places.

The plan is that the miniature robots will have a diameter of around ten millimetres, although the prototypes are currently still twice that size. According to Sébastien de Rivaz – Research Fellow at the University of Harvard’s Wyss Institute – the development will still take some five to ten years.

INSPECT robots

These miniature robots are periscopic camera robots measuring no more than a pencil, which are designed to be permanently installed in the engine. This presents the researchers with the challenge of overcoming the extreme heat inside an engine from which the robots need to be protected.

This type of miniature robot is designed to enable an engine to inspect itself and independently signal the need for maintenance, with the data collected by the sensors being transmitted by satellite. Inspection robots are at a similar development stage to swarm robots.

Snake or flare robots

These small snake-like robots can be inserted into engines, rather like an endoscope, to jointly repair damaged thermal insulation layers. One robot would use a camera to inspect the area to be treated, while the second one would be responsible for applying the coating.

Remote-controlled bore-blending robots

To date specialists have generally been needed on site for bore blending, also known as borescope blending. This method is used to repair damaged blades and vanes in compressors. The advantage is that the damaged material can be ground without the compressor needing to be dismantled. The bore-blending tool is inserted through the eye of the borescope, the former equipped with both a grinding tool and a camera. This is a job that requires precision and dexterity and therefore requires experts to travel specifically for the work – involving extensive time and cost.

Remote bore-blending robots therefore offer major potential savings. Experts do not necessarily need to be on site to install them, work that can be done by mechanics on the ground. The miniature robots are equipped with scanners that permit the visual inspection of the blades and transmit the images across a secure data connection. Ultimately the actual repair can be done by the miniature robots remotely controlled by the experts themselves who repair the vane using a high-speed spindle with a grinding attachment.

This type of miniature robot is currently the most advanced. According to Rolls-Royce, remote-controlled bore-blending robots have already been tested and are expected to be introduced within the next two years.

Header picture © Rolls Royce

by Jennifer Weitbrecht

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