GE Aviation’s acquisition of UK-based OC Robotics, a manufacturer of snake-arm robots, marked another foray by an aerospace OEM looking to grow its robotics capabilities. Announced in June, the U.S. engine manufacturer noted the acquisition’s potential for improving its service capabilities, including component repair development and the efficiency of its on-wing support team in engine inspections and repairs.
“OC Robotics fits very well into GE Aviation’s Services organization, specifically in our advanced engineering repair development function,” says Lance Herrington, integration leader for GE Aviation overseeing the post-acquisition process for OC Robotics, which has operated out of Bristol since 1997. “Their [OC Robotics] technologies can maneuver in tight spaces, which will enable new repairs to be developed and aid the on-wing support teams as they work to inspect and repair engines on-wing.”
As of late July, Herrington says the integration of OC Robotics into GE Aviation’s services portfolio was ongoing and will eventually result in a company rebranding. However, he also believes that the human and financial resources of GE will enable the robotics specialist to further expand its product offering in the future.
In the past decade, the notion of using robots for aircraft inspections has increasingly become realistic, with engine specialists looking to find ways of using the technology not only to reach confined parts of an engine but also to reduce the need for touch-labor. GE’s fellow engine giant Rolls-Royce is developing ways to replicate the role of engineers out in the field undertaking on-wing repairs. The goal, according to James Kell, a technologist working on on-wing projects at its Derby headquarters, is to conserve the limited number of specialists dispatched across the world and instead use robotics to send back images to the OEM, ultimately expediting the on-wing repair process.
The project draws on the expertise of academia through a collaboration with the nearby University of Nottingham, which manufactures the robotics equipment at a specialist Rolls-Royce University Technology Center in the city. Rolls-Royce says the robotics innovations both parties are developing, with the Trent XWB engine earmarked as the demonstrator, are intended to give experts at its Derby base the ability to carry out engineering tasks on engines at any location in the world by remote control. “The robots can be placed in situ by less skilled technicians, allowing the specialist to carry out the engine repair remotely and in a matter of hours,” Kell says.
Airline maintenance divisions are also evaluating the tangible benefits that can be gleaned from robots. Air New Zealand is seeking to employ robotics in its maintenance processes by drawing on a technology used in the dairy industry. Last year, the carrier began testing the use of wall-climbing, camera-mounted robots to conduct remote inspections on an aircraft fuselage. Working in conjunction with Christchurch-based inspection specialist Invert Robotics, Air New Zealand noted the similarities between the shape of a milk tank and an aircraft fuselage. Once deployed on the fuselage’s surface, the technology uses remote-controlled inspection equipment to detect damage not immediately visible to the human eye and send back high-resolution footage in real time.
Another application of robotics, using drones, is also being explored as a potential way of performing aircraft inspections. Among the most prominent early adopters of the technology is UK-based low-cost carrier EasyJet, which began trials of inspections using drones on its Airbus A320 fleet in 2014 at its main base at Luton Airport in the UK.
Three years later, testing is ongoing; an EasyJet representative tells Inside MRO: “We are continuing to progress work into how drones could help with the inspection of our aircraft, with a view to eventually enabling the airline to reduce delays as a result. The automated drones that are being tested will perform detailed aircraft checks to assess damage to aircraft, quickly reporting back to engineers on any damage which may require further attention or maintenance work.” According to EasyJet, use of drones could lead to reduction and eventually elimination of technical delays, excluding those caused by natural events beyond its control, such as lightning and bird strikes.