Innovation

Why jet repair bots are a Rolls Royce solution

Repairing jet engines means keeping planes on the ground; but it also means despatching engineers to the far side of the world at short notice. Rolls Royce believes that robots are the answer.

August 3, 2017

Whatever newspaper headlines might say to the contrary, researchers and developers within the technology industry all agree that robotics and AI should be less about replacing workers, and more about how we segment the new world of work and create jobs: a process of augmenting human skills with assistive technologies. It should never be about ‘human vs. machine’.

A great example of this can be found at jet engine giant, Rolls Royce, which has been pioneering the new field of robotic jet engine surgery, in partnership with researchers at Nottingham University. Using this new technology, Rolls Royce engineers based in the UK can repair a jet engine thousands of miles away, using a specially designed tele-robot.

So what’s the story behind the innovation?

Follow the money

Rolls Royce makes more profit from maintaining its jet engines than it does from selling them; 55 per cent of its revenues come from the aftermarket, according to Dr James Kell, one of the company’s in-situ repair engineers at its Derby facility.

On the face of it, this might suggest – wrongly, of course – that Rolls Royce could have a financial incentive to keep its engines in the repair shop. However, the reverse is true, because its customers pay a dollar rate per engine flight hour, but nothing when the plane is on the ground.

Unplanned engine removal can cost the company well over £100,000 in lost flight time. To minimise delays to airlines and their passengers, Rolls Royce inspects and repairs its engines on the wing, where possible.

On-wing repairs are similar to keyhole surgery on human beings, with engineers using microscopically accurate tools to search for and repair internal problems. For example, minute areas of damage caused by grit and dirt might be invisible to the naked eye, but could cause catastrophic failure if not spotted and fixed.

At present, engineers carry out the task on the tarmac with miniature cameras, rigid probes, and other equipment that can be inserted along the length of the engine without taking it apart or removing it. But there is a problem: there are perhaps only ten people in the organisation worldwide who have the skills to carry out this vital, expensive, and painstaking work, said Kell.

This presents a major challenge if those engineers are in Derby, for example, and the plane is on the ground in Dubai: Rolls Royce can’t keep despatching specialists at a moment’s notice to the other side of the globe, with the long flight times, tiredness, delays, and cost that entails.

This is why tele-engineering via remote robots is emerging as the smart, safe, cost-effective solution.

Wherever in the world the plane happens to be, a technician attaches a robot to the engine that needs servicing. Via the robot, a qualified engineer in Derby inspects the mechanism remotely and carries out meticulous internal repairs, using cameras and haptics to control the robot’s tools inside the engine.

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This is an example of robotics augmenting existing human skills and creating new jobs – technicians on the ground at airports – while maximising the value and effectiveness of a company’s expert employees. The hardware and software to do this have been developed at Nottingham University, where Rolls Royce has a research facility.

As previously reported on Hack & Craft News, the emerging challenge in robotics and AI is that academics, researchers, technologists, and vendors all see these new technologies as being about augmenting human skills, while analysts, governments, and private sector customers tend to focus on their potential to slash costs and replace human workers completely.

As a result, any societal problems that emerge in the wake of the robotic revolution, such as mass unemployment, may be rooted in the tactical misapplication of these technologies as much as the relentless march of the machines.

At Rolls Royce, these new technologies have other benefits, too. For example, they generate reams of data about engine performance, component life-cycles, and maintenance, enabling Rolls Royce to better manage its assets and use analytics to predict problems before they occur.

Robotics and AI often work in partnership with predictive analytics and enterprise asset management in this way, as our case study at CERN explored earlier this year.

In the medium term, Rolls Royce and its Nottingham researchers are working towards introducing segmented snake robots and robotic swarm inspections and, in the long term, towards fully automated inspections – a viable option if robots have a detailed map of each engine.

Augmented reality interfaces are also on the horizon – perhaps allowing engineers to walk around inside an engine on the other side of the world, inspecting and fixing each miniature component.

This type of tele-engineering, remote inspection, and repair work is forecast to be a mainstay of the robotics revolution. Drones, repair bots, AI, machine-learning, haptics, and other technologies, will enable organisations to inspect roads, bridges, towers, railway lines, wind turbines, nuclear power stations, sewers, gas pipes, and other parts of our critical infrastructure much more efficiently, cheaply, and at lower risk to human beings than is possible at present.

Robotics and AI really are ready for take-off.

See Hack & Craft News’ previous report on robotics and AI for some more innovative and unusual uses of these technologies, including in infrastructure repair.