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Cockroach-style inspection bots will scuttle inside Rolls-Royce engines

Joseph Flaig at the Farnborough Airshow

An artist's impression of the cockroach-style inspection robot (Credit: Rolls-Royce)
An artist's impression of the cockroach-style inspection robot (Credit: Rolls-Royce)

Miniature robots styled on insects will be placed inside aircraft engines by flexible ‘snake’ machines before inspecting for damage, Rolls-Royce has said.

The aerospace giant set out its vision for robotic engine maintenance, including the swarm-like miniature bots, at the Farnborough Airshow.

Experts from the company and academics from Harvard University and the University of Nottingham demonstrated four devices for maintenance, each at a different stage of development.

The least-developed concept was the swarm robots. “This is one of our more far-reaching technologies,” said Dr James Kell, on-wing technology specialist at Rolls-Royce. “We have got a lot of work to do.”

Nevertheless, the firm said they could be operating in engines within several years. 

Developed over the past eight years at Harvard, the 10mm-wide cockroach-inspired bots would have remote cameras mounted on them. Deposited through a flexible tube similar to Rolls-Royce’s endoscopic Flare robot concept, a team of the small devices would “scuttle” through aircraft engines providing live video, allowing operators to spot faults such as cracks in components. After inspection, the devices would load back on to the snake-like delivery robot. 

Rolls-Royce is developing the technology to allow inspections without removing engines from wings, a vital aim as the company seeks to maximise efficiency and profits. The miniature robots could also offer much quicker inspection, said Kell, potentially doing five-hour jobs in five minutes. 

Other highlighted devices include the snake-like Flare robots, a network of ‘periscopes’ that could be permanently embedded within engines, and a remote bore-blending robot from a collaboration with the University of Nottingham, which would allow remote inspection and repair of parts such as compressor blades by a specialist working on the other side of the world. 

The devices, each at a different stage of development, are part of Rolls-Royce’s Intelligent Engine concept. “It’s a vision, a way of thinking,” summarised vice-president Richard Goodhead.  

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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