Rolls-Royce turns to robotic insects and snakes for future aircraft maintenance
Tiny robots working alongside humansBy Rob Thubron 12 comments
Forward-looking: Despite sounding like something from a science-fiction movie, Rolls-Royce is planning to use robots inspired by snakes and cockroaches to carry out future maintenance on aviation engines.
As part of its IntelligentEngine vision, the British engineering firm, which is separate from the luxury car company, teamed up with the University of Nottingham and Harvard University for the project.
The plan is for miniature Swarm robots, which measure around 10mm diameter, to be deposited into the center of a plane's engine while it's still on the aircraft's wing. They will carry a camera and a 3D scanner that allow operators to inspect the engine and look for any problems via a live feed. The robots' small size mean they would be able to access hard-to-reach areas without needing to remove the engine from a craft.
The Swarm robots will be placed in their starting locations using FLARE---a pair of 'snake' robots that are flexible enough to travel through an engine, much like an endoscope. These are also able to carry out engine inspections and repairs.
Rolls-Royce also unveiled plans for the Inspect robots---a network of pencil-sized machines that remain inside an engine permanently. Thermally protected from the extreme heat, they could be used to monitor an engine's health.
"There's lots of things that aren't ready yet, there's more work to do yet to get this more mature," said James Kell, on-wing technology specialist at Rolls. Getting the cockroach-like Swarm robots back out of the engine is one issue that still needs to be addressed.
"The aim is to service engines within hours rather than days," Kell added.
Rolls-Royce announced its plans at the Farnborough Airshow, the same event where Aston Martin revealed its flying vehicle concept, which was designed in collaboration with the engine company.