They’re called SWARM robots for a reason, so says Rolls-Royce

Proving that robotics is right in its wheelhouse, Roll-Royce, alongside Harvard University and The University of Nottingham, is looking into developing small robots, called SWARM robots, to help maintain aircraft engines. The technology, which was initially showcased at the Singapore Airshow earlier this year, involves microbots that measure roughly 10 mm in diameter. These microbots are deposited into the center of a plane’s engine where they can go around autonomously and conduct visual inspections of the engine, especially areas that are harder to reach than others, and make the necessary repairs in the event they’re needed.

It’s not on the level of the “nanoprobes” used to turn people into Borg in Star Trek, but Rolls-Royce’s SWARM robots could point to the future of aircraft engine maintenance. As we mentioned, the microbots measure just 10 mm in diameter, far smaller than the previous microbots — they measure 4.5 cm, or 45 mm — that Rolls-Royce has already developed. Smaller microbots mean that they can fit into and crawl around smaller and tighter spaces, enhancing their functionality in the process.

Once the microbots are in place, a small camera affixed to each one of them can be turned on to provide live feedback to its human operators.

The operators can then feed the visual data they see to airplane engineers, who will then proceed with making the necessary inspections and repairs if need be.

The potential significance of Rolls-Royce’s SWARM bots can’t be understated, especially their potential to significantly reduce inspection times. “They could go off scuttling around reaching all different parts of the combustion chamber,” Rolls-Royce technology specialist James Kell said. “If we did it conventionally it would take us five hours; with these little robots, who knows, it might take five minutes.”

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In addition to the SWARM robots, the British luxury car brand and its partner universities are also developing Inspect robots that are around the site of a pencil. These microbots can be permanently embedded within the engine, allowing the engine to actually inspect itself. The Inspect robots also come with thermal protection, preventing them from getting damaged by the extreme heat of an engine.

It’s not surprising that Rolls-Royce has become a leading authority in this technological frontier. The automaker has roots planted in the aviation industry, specifically as a manufacturer of aircraft engines. That the company is developing technology that specifically addresses expediting aircraft engine maintenance is something that shouldn’t be lost on anybody. Who knows, the use and functions of these SWARM robots could extend past aircraft engines.

Rest assured, though, Rolls-Royce is spending its time wisely in pursuit of technologies like this, something Richard Goodhead pointed out in a statement.

“The advancements we are making in robotics are a great example of us bringing our IntelligentEngine vision to life,” he said. “By exploring how we might use the rapid progress we are seeing in fields such as digital and robotics, we are ensuring that Rolls-Royce will continue to lead the way in service innovation, offering the very best value for our customers.”

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