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Robot engineers reduce carbon emissions for aviation companies

Repairing an aircraft engine is a complicated process. Specialist engineers are needed, and most repairs must be performed with the engine in-situ, as removing it from the plane takes time – something to be avoided in the fast-paced aviation world.

Companies like Rolls-Royce, which manufactures and maintain the engines, are paid when aircraft fly and want to minimise engine downtime, or “off-wing” time. Sometimes this means that flying specialist engineers out to the planes, wherever they may be in the world, is the most viable option for a quick turnaround.

Currently Rolls-Royce has On-Wing Care hubs in strategic global locations, flying an engineer to wherever they are needed to support their customers.

New technology being developed by the University of Nottingham in conjunction with Rolls-Royce looks set to change this, dramatically reducing the miles both engines and engineers have to travel, and cutting the associated carbon emissions.

Researchers and engineers from the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre for Manufacturing and On-Wing Technology have designed specialist, slender snake-like robots that can navigate into crammed spaces of the engines and be operated remotely, meaning engineers can view their work through a camera and control them from anywhere in the world.

"The robot will insert itself, make observations and measurements and start the repairs, all while tele-operated by the remote engineer"
Professor Dragos Axinte

This means that complicated maintenance and repair tasks could be completed remotely by specialists, saving time and resources. The local, non-specialist team simply installs the robot on the engine and then hands control over to a dedicated expert in Rolls-Royce’s Aircraft Availability Centre who would then direct its work remotely.

Professor Dragos Axinte, Director of the Centre, said: “Conventionally, these on-wing engine repairs are performed by highly skilled engineers who need to be deployed as quickly as possible.

“These robots make it possible for an engineer to oversee and operate things from a remote hub, without having to travel to the affected plane. Instead of sending an engineer to the problem – which has financial and environmental implications – someone local can mount the robot on the engine. Then, the robot will insert itself, make observations and measurements and start the repairs, all while tele-operated by the remote engineer.”

"No longer will engineers have to fly thousands of miles to attend to aircraft when they can simply access them from a computer screen wherever they are"
Professor Dragos Axinte

The team have created two different types of snake like robots.

The first, known as COBRA, is small enough to fit through the portholes of less than 10mm in the side of an engine and can carry out maintenance tasks at distances up to 5m on components by mechanical or laser machining. These continuum (snake-like) robots operate with many degrees of freedom, enabling access in contorted/crammed spaces with a stereovision camera and a miniature cutting tool.

The second, known as FLARE, is a twin, snake-like robot (one carrying a miniaturised combustion flame deposition torch and another measurement instruments) that are flexible enough to travel through an engine before working together to carry out patch repairs to damaged thermal barrier coatings. And all while manipulating the flame spray at more than 2000oC in a confined space!

Professor Axinte said: “The potential for these robots to drastically transform the way aircraft repairs are carried out is huge and could play a crucial role in helping the aviation industry in its efforts reduce its carbon emissions. No longer will engineers have to fly thousands of miles to attend to aircraft when they can simply access them from a computer screen wherever they are.”

Dragos Axinte 

Professor Dragos Axinte is Professor of Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering. He is also a Director of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre in Manufacturing and On-Wing Technology.

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