Rolls-Royce beetle robot Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce Developing Robotics For Engine Maintenance

The British engine maker showcased some of its robotics projects at Farnborough on July 17.

FARNBOROUGH--Coinciding with its IntelligentEngine vision launched at the Singapore Airshow in February, which tied together Rolls-Royce's world of products and services, the OEM showcased four robotics projects it is developing for engine maintenance at Farnborough on Tuesday (July 17).

James Kell, an on-wing technologist based at Rolls-Royce’s Derby headquarters working on the projects, says the repair technology division targets the creation of new and innovative repair techniques for when an engine comes back into the workshop. “When it comes back in for overhaul, we want to ensure we can repair those engines quickly and cheaply,” he says.

For its remote boreblending robots innovation, the technology enables technicians to get inside an engine to repair damaged compressor blades while they are still inside. Rolls’ in-house teams and the University of Nottingham collaborated to develop the robotic boreblending machine designed for granting engineers remote controlled access. Once the tool is installed, teams in close proximity to the engine can hand over control to trained experts at the Rolls-Royce Aircraft Availability Centre in Derby, which it opened in summer 2017. “This device started off as an idea we had around 3.5 years ago and developed into a full-scale engine demonstration,” Kell says. “This asset basically allows us to service our engines within hours rather than days so this could potentially be a revolutionary idea.”

Rolls’ "inspect" project utilizes fiber network cameras permanently housed inside an engine—essentially allowing the engine to inspect itself when in the air and report any maintenance requirements. “This is a device where we are suggesting that rather than having just ears on our health monitoring system we can also have eyes on there,” says Kell about the project, which was partly funded by public body Innovate UK. It also involved input from partners including British pressure sensors manufacturer Oxsensis, electro optical specialist BJR Systems, electronic engineering consultancy Roke Manor and frequent collaborator the University of Nottingham.

Another project is the "swarm robots" initiative, which sees small robots measuring around 10mm in diameter that resemble beetle insects deployed to far reaching parts of the engine’s combustion chamber. By using a camera attached to the swarm-robots, a live video is then fed back to the operator, resulting in a visual inspection without removing the engine from the aircraft. Kell says this method is a much more efficient way of performing an inspection as opposed to a more conventional fashion, which he says can take as long as five hours. Harvard University conducted work into the structure of the walking robot device, while the University of Nottingham devised methods to get the beetles in and out of the engine.

The snake robot is also central to one of Rolls’ projects. Dubbed "Flare," a pair of the snake robots travel through the engine—not to help remove material like the swarm robots, but instead to place it back inside. “Here we are trying to patch repairs to damaged thermal barrier coatings,” Kell says. Collaborating with the University of Nottingham and metal spray equipment and systems specialist Metallisation, along with funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute, Rolls seeks to carry out a patch repair rather than bringing an engine back to full health. “This ensures the engine comes back into a scheduled maintenance overhaul at the right time instead of too early,” he says. 

Kell says Rolls is operating on individual timeframes for all four projects, with some closer to being introduced than others. He says the remote boreblending robots are undergoing testing and will begin to be introduced over the next few years, yet concedes that in the case of the inspect robotics, it could be a while yet before they even see an engine.

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