The engines of an airplane are complicated machines with plenty of hard-to-reach places, and keeping them in working order requires a lot of time and maintenance. The future of this task, as Rolls-Royce sees it, could involve deploying different kinds of of robots that patrol these aircraft parts and quickly nip any problems in the bud.
These robots are part of Rolls-Royce's IntelligentEngine project, a venture announced earlier in the year aimed at developing connected engines with the potential to repair themselves. The robots would help by first carrying out inspections, which could eliminate the need to remove an entire engine from an aircraft. The hope is that they can then actually perform some minor maintenance tasks at the same time.
"Flare" would take the form of a snake-like robot that can wind through the engine environment like an endoscope, teaming up with other snakes to patch up damaged thermal barrier coatings.
These snake robots would also perform the important role of spitting out smaller cockroach-like "Swarm" robots in the center of the engine. These 10-mm-long (0.4 in) critters would be armed with small cameras and stream a live feed back to the operator who can carry out visual inspections much more efficiently.
Also part of the mix would be pencil-thin periscope-like "Inspect" robots permanently built into the engine. These are thermally protected to withstand the extreme heat and would pop up as required to make sure everything is in working order, beaming any relevant data back to the operations center.
Rolls-Royce says it is also working on robotic boreblending robots, which would enable specialist engineers to carry out important tasks, such as grinding replacement parts, remotely. Like the other robots in the pipeline, this would hasten the job of engine maintenance and cut down on costs.
Rolls-Royce worked with researchers from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University on the development of the robots. And although some are further along than others, it is at the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK this week demonstrating their capabilities.
"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," said Dr James Kell, Rolls-Royce On-Wing Technology Specialist. "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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