Rolls-Royce is developing tiny 'cockroach' robots to crawl in and fix airplane engines

By David Reid

Rolls-Royce said Tuesday it is developing tiny “cockroach” robots that can crawl inside aircraft engines to spot and fix problems.

The U.K. engineer said the miniature technology can improve the way maintenance is carried out by speeding up inspections and eliminating the need to remove an engine from an aircraft for repair work to take place.

Tiny prototype robots developed by Harvard University using the cockroach as inspiration.
Tiny prototype robots developed by Harvard University using the cockroach as inspiration.

“They could go off scuttling around reaching all different parts of the combustion chamber,” said James Kell, technology specialist at Rolls-Royce.

Speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, Kell added that the robots could save engineers a lot of time.

“If we did it conventionally it would take us five hours; with these little robots, who knows, it might take five minutes,” he added.

To explore the concept, the Rolls-Royce has teamed up with robotics experts at Harvard University in the U.S. and the University of Nottingham in England.

Sebastian de Rivaz, a research fellow at Harvard Institute, said the inspiration for their design came from the cockroach and that the robotic bugs had been in development for eight years.

He added that the next step was to mount cameras on the robots and scale them down to a 15-milimeter size. De Rivaz said that once the robots had performed their duty they could be programed to leave the engine or could simply be “flushed out” by the engine itself.

Also under development are “snake” robots that are flexible enough to travel through an engine like an endoscope.

These would enter through a combustion chamber and would inspect damage and remove any debris. The second “snake” would deposit a patch repair that would sit temporarily until the engine was ready for full repair.

No schedule is placed on when the crawling robots will be available, but already in development is a “remote boreblending robot” to fix damage to compressor blades in the engine that Rolls-Royce said engineers should be using within two years.

These would be bolted-on to an engine by a low-skilled worker and control then handed to a skilled worker remotely based at the Rolls-Royce aircraft center in Derby, England.

The unit carries out a 3D scan to remotely assess the problem, before being retooled to allow the repair to take place. Again, the aim is to reduce time and cost by keeping the engine on the plane and prevent a high-skilled worker from having to fly to the plane’s location.