By Marisa Garcia
August 15, 2018
Courtesy of Rolls Royce and Wyss Institute

Keeping planes' engines well maintained is critical to flight safety. A swarm of robot bugs could help.

Rolls-Royce has revealed a project with the Wyss Institute of Harvard University to develop tiny robots that could help inspect all the nooks and crannies of aircraft engines by crawling through around inside, scanning for any tiny flaws that could grow into bigger problems.

Engine checks cost airlines a lot of time and money. Even the shortest checks can take hours to complete, during which the engine must be taken apart, the fan blades and other components checked for problems, and the whole thing put back together again.

KLM, which has leading Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MRO) facilities that serve a number of airlines around the world, explains that a full engine test can take up to 16 hours including disassembling and then rebuilding the engine.

And there are many different types of engine checks required at different points in their service life. It’s very sensitive and specialised work and gets expensive. In 2014, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that engine inspections cost airlines around $24 billion and predicted that costs would rise to $36 billion by 2024.

With this new technology, the robot SWARM would be fed into the engine by a a robot snake, scurry around, and transmit live video from their tiny cameras to the maintenance operator.

These little robot bugs are actually “quadrupedal microbots” which means they move on four legs. They can move vertically or horizontally which would allow them to climb over and through the many wires and turbine components, find the parts they are assigned to check, and then crawl back into the snake to be removed when their work is finished.

Courtesy of Wyss Institute

The versions Wyss Institute researchers have developed right now are bigger than the bots which would ultimately be used to check engines. But they are still only 4.5 centimeters long, weighing 1.5 grams. The plan would be to miniaturize them as the technology advances.

“We’ve got about eight years of research which makes it a concentration of technology that we’d find nowhere else on Earth,” said Sébastien de Rivas, a research fellow at Wyss Institute Harvard University.

Robots big and small are learning to move to help with a number of industrial applications. Boston Dynamics has developed a robot dog which can get around on four legs and even open doors. And Wal-Mart has patented little robot bees that could find pollen and pollinate flowers.

These bots appear in the plots of “Black Mirror,” but those working on this technology want to keep it safe for humans. Artificial intelligence and robotics researchers have recently signed an agreement not to use this technology to develop weapons, which is comforting.

If the tiny Rolls-Royce robot SWARM can keep engines flying safely, then they’ll actually be saving lives.