Rolls-Royce proposed a system of 10-mm-diameter robots that would be inserted into an aircraft engine, crawling through inaccessible areas to conduct a visual inspection.

Rolls-Royce is Robotizing Jet-Engine Maintenance

July 30, 2018
Four concepts to speed, simplify, and economize engine evaluation and repair, from miniature inspection devices to remote ‘boreblending’ units that repair coating damage

Rolls-Royce Plc recently outlined a series of robotics developments it is pursuing that it said would “revolutionize the future of engine maintenance,” speeding and simplifying inspection and repair processes, and saving costs for the engine owners and operators. According to Rolls the automation ideas it described are part of the "IntelligentEngine vision" introduced earlier this year, projecting a combination products and services that would enhance engine performance, reliability, and value.

The approach also is in line with the organizational restructuring underway at Rolls-Royce, by which the jet-engine builder aims to create “simpler, leaner and more agile organization”, closer to its customers, and emphasizing new technologies.

“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,” according to Rolls-Royce senior vice president of marketing Richard Goodhead.

The new robotics are in development with various commercial and academic partners, and are at various stages of readiness, Rolls noted. First is a series of collaborative, miniature robots, each one about 10 mm in diameter, that would be placed into an engine via a ‘snake’ robot, moving about in inaccessible areas to perform visual inspection. These SWARM robots would be fitted with cameras that deliver a live video feedback to an operator, who performs a rapid visual evaluation without having to remove the engine from the aircraft.

Next, Rolls described a network of ‘periscope’ robots permanently embedded within the engine, making possible a sort of “auto-inspection” using cameras to spot and report any maintenance needs. These pencil-sized, INSPECT robots are thermally protected from the extreme heat generated by an engine, and would compile visual data to be used with the volumes of data already generated by current engine monitoring systems.

Also introduced is a type of remote “boreblending” robot that can be controlled by engineers to repair damaged parts, like compressor blades, using lasers to grind the affected areas. The work could be conducted by local technicians and dedicated engineers at Rolls-Royce’s Aircraft Availability Centre, linked to the site remotely. It would minimize the need for specialist teams and reduce the time out-of-service for damaged engines.

The last project described is a pair of ‘snake’ robots called FLARE, which are flexible enough to move into and through an engine and make patch repairs to damaged thermal barrier coatings.

“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,” commented Dr. James Kell, on-wing technology specialist with Rolls-Royce.

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