Rolls-Royce may use bug-like robots to assist airplane engine repair

Tiny, cockroach-like robots could inspect engines internally in the future.

Rolls-Royce showed off a handful of small robots this week that could aid in the inspection and repair of airplane engines sometime in the future. Though still under development, the tiny robots could lead to faster, less labor-intensive engine inspections as well as cost reductions for engine maintenance. The technologies, which were displayed at the Farnborough Airshow, are being developed in partnership with other companies as well as researchers at the University of Nottingham and Harvard University.

Swarm robots are small, cockroach-inspired robots that in theory will be able to be delivered inside of an engine and with small cameras, provide a look inside. This way, the engine wouldn't have to be removed from the plane in order for an inspection to take place. Researchers at Harvard University are working on scaling down the robots, which, as of now, are still too big for this type of work.

Along with the Swarm robots, Rolls-Royce also displayed a periscope-like robot that could be embedded within an engine itself and could always be on the lookout for any repairs that may need to be performed. A pair of snake-like robots were also on display, and their flexible design would allow them to travel throughout an engine, sort of like an endoscope, and then work together to perform repairs. And lastly, Rolls-Royce displayed its remote boreblending robots, which could be installed in an engine by pretty much anyone and an expert can then control it remotely, negating the need for these specialists to travel to an aircraft's location to perform certain repairs.

"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," James Kell, an on-wing technology specialist with Rolls-Royce, said at the airshow. "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."

Rolls-Royce | Remote boreblending robots from Rolls-Royce on Vimeo.