Researchers from Nottingham University are working with Rolls-Royce to develop robots that can perform remote repairs to airplane engines, without removing them from the wing.
Taking an engine off the plane costs six-figure sums in lost flight time, so engine makers such as Rolls-Royce prefer to conduct ‘on-wing’ inspection and repairs where possible.
At the moment, such work is undertaken by skilled engineers working with rigid cameras and probes similar to those sometimes used in the medical industry. The engineers have to deftly manoeuvre the tools into the right place to analyse and repair problems.
Because it’s such a specialised job, there are only a handful of people able to do it, and they have to be flown around the world to where the problems are so they can work on the engines, which costs time and money.
However, a team at the University of Nottingham’s Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre of Manufacturing, led by Dragos Axinte, are building remote-controlled robots that can do the same job. The robots have a long, thin, flexible arm that can enter the engine through one of the small access holes in the side. They are controlled by a series of actuator that sit outside the engine, and can recreate the inputs of the human’s arm.
The idea is that the skilled engineers will then be able to investigate problems and perform repairs from Rolls-Royce’s base in Derby. “Instead of sending an engineer to Singapore, someone less skilled can mount the engine on the robot,” Axinte told Professional Engineering. “The robot can insert itself, make observations, and then start repairing - with everything operated by the guy from Derby.”
His team are also working on robots that can snake through small gaps in the engine and reach places where existing tools can’t. “A lot of these tools have their roots in the medical world and a lot of them have this direction towards robotics which gives us an unparalleled level of control and direction,” said James Kell, who works on ‘On-Wing’ technology at Rolls Royce. “Ultimately what we’re trying to do is not just inspect something but make repairs as well.”
As well as creating robotic arms that can reach through tight spaces, Rolls-Royce are working with Nottingham and other suppliers to create miniaturised tools that can then make repairs in this spaces. One of those prototypes has already been used (in conjunction with more traditional tools) to repair an engine that would otherwise have been dismantled. “That alone justifies us being involved in three years’ worth of research and development effort,” said Kell.