Rolls-Royce Developing Tiny Robots To Fix Planes

Mini robots will crawl into aeroplane engines to assess damage and carry out repairs

For engineers, some of the best ideas and inspirations come from the natural world. We have seen flexible soft robots which can swim like jellyfish or climb walls like a caterpillar, to four legged robots which move like dogs, evolution certainly has the upper hand and a lot of practice when it comes to mechanical design.

Whilst they might not be everyone’s favourite creature, cockroaches are notable for their ability to squeeze through small spaces in spite of their hard exoskeleton. This, when combined with their ability to run and climb extremely fast, gives them properties which many robotics engineers seek to reproduce in their mechanical creations. This is exactly what a team of roboticists are aiming to do for automobile company Rolls-Royce.

Miniature robots, maximum impact

Rolls-Royce has teamed up with robotics experts at Harvard University and the University of Nottingham in the UK to develop miniature bug like robots capable of inspecting and fixing aeroplane engines. The current method of carrying out inspections requires the removal of the engine from the aircraft by highly skilled engineers, in a process which takes a minimum of five hours to complete. Offering significant improvement on this practice, Rolls-Royce’s new miniature robots would simply crawl into the engine in situ – their tiny size and incredible mobility enabling them to reach all parts of the combustion chamber to assess damage and carry out repairs.

Measuring 4.5cm in length and weighing 1.5g, these micro robots are small – but currently too large to be sent into engines at the moment, keeping the project firmly in the prototyping and concept stage for now. The next step in their development is to add cameras to the robots and to scale them down in size, with an overall length of around 10mm ideal for engine inspection.

Moving at a snail’s pace

Whilst the arrival of the crawling bug robots into aeroplane engines isn’t expected any time soon, they are already the result of eight years of hard work and several important breakthroughs. One of these was the creation of the robot’s legs with eight degrees of freedom, meaning that it can move them horizontally and vertically – enabling it to achieve tasks that similar sized machines have previously been unable to do.

Excitingly, other robot developments are on the horizon at Rolls-Royce. Again working with the University of Nottingham, the company has developed boreblending robots which fix damage to compressor blades in the engine without requiring the engine’s removal.

In a time and cost saving move, the boreblending robot is attached to the engine. It is then remotely operated by a highly skilled engineer, who uses its 3D scanning capability to take detailed measurements and assess the problem. The robot can then be retooled to enable the repair to take place – again, all remotely controlled by the engineer.

This method drastically reduces costs and customer disruption as it does not require the removal of the engine from the aircraft. What’s more, skilled engineers no longer have to travel out to the plane in order to fix it, cutting down repair times from several days to a few hours. Rolls-Royce expects these robots to be in operation over the next few years.

Approaching a robot future

These developments are part of wider progress that has been made in the field of robotics in the past few years. From surveyor robots in construction, to produce picking robots in agriculture, robots are transforming the landscape of all business sectors and industries. Perhaps the most important aspect of robots is their influence on productivity – improving business output whilst radically lowering costs. Hand in hand with this benefit, however, comes the omnipresent threat of job losses due to automation. As we move into our robot future, intelligent machines will be present in our factories, cities, schools, office buildings and homes. We will increasingly need to counter the threat of automation with education and innovation, if we want to remain on the right side of this incredibly powerful disruptive force.

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