The most important thing about aviation is safety. A plane should not be in the air if the airliner has even the slightest doubts about its airworthiness. But, airliners want their aircraft in the air and making money, not in the hangar being maintained. Unfortunately, inspection and repair of jet engines is inherently difficult and due to small spaces and restricted access to internal aircraft engine components. To answer this problem, Rolls-Royce teamed up with the University of Nottingham to look into robotics as a part of a collaboration funded in part by Innovate UK and the Aerospace Technology Institute.
‘Reiner’ is a robotic probe that combines rotary, prismatic, and flexible joints to replicate the degree of freedom of hand-held tools to repair compressor blades in-situ. At the prototype demonstration, ‘Reiner’ displayed interchangeable tools and repaired an engine at a Rolls-Royce facility. And ‘Reiner’ is not alone. ‘Flare’ is a pair of flexible snake-robots that can travel through an engine like and endoscope and work together to carry out patch repairs for thermal barrier coatings. ‘Inspect’ is a network of pencil-sized periscope-like optical sensors that can inspect and report any maintenance requirements in the engine. The ‘Swarm’ is a set of 10 mm robots that can crawl through the engine with small cameras to perform rapid visual inspections in hard-to-reach areas still in the conceptual stages. Harvard University’s cockroach-like robot is the product of an eight-year long effort to miniaturize robots.
Actualizing the use of miniature robots to perform inspections and repairs in-situ can revolutionize aircraft engine maintenance to an unbelievable degree. Teams of specialists won’t have to fly around the world to do AOG repairs, local teams can insert robots for remote use instead. While researchers at Rolls-Royce, University of Nottingham, and Harvard University have yet to deliver finished products for widespread use, they’re close. And the future of aircraft maintenance has never looked brighter.
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