Snakes take to the sky!

The engine of an aeroplane is an extremely delicate device, made up of over 100 different sensors, designed to monitor factors such as temperature and pressure inside the engine. These sensors detect any changes in the internal conditions then send signals to machines on the ground which can respond appropriately to resolve any minor issues. This is an efficient system that has developed largely over the past decade and has reduced the amount of aircraft related incidents by over 10%. Although engines are delicate, these engines can generate a thrust force during take-off that could shatter a truck to pieces and scatter the remains through a distance of over half a kilometre. However, what solutions are there when an engine suffers serious damage that cannot be resolved by the sensors within or by skilled mechanics because the parts are too delicate? The answer to this is snakes!

Snakes on a plane may sound crazy yet this technological feat could one day be used on aircraft all over the world. The British jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce are developing snake-like robots that can manoeuvre their way inside the intricate engine of the aircraft to seek out and repair damaged components using highly powerful ultraviolet lasers. The snake passes into the engine and takes images of the internal structure, which are then sent to a computer device and assessed by a specialist. In some cases, the snake itself can be used to repair the damage, however, in other situations an engineer may be required depending on the magnitude of the damage. If successful these ‘snakes’ could be used to fix problems within minutes, which would otherwise take hours if not days, it would reduce flight delays at airports. This development will not only prove to be highly efficient, but also extremely economical. Millions of pounds every year could be saved by leading airline companies, such as British airways and IATA (which spends 43% of its yearly expenditure on engine maintenance), due to the reduced need to strip down the engines in an attempt to find and fix the problem – the robotic snakes could instead inspect the structure and amend the issue, meaning planes will not need to be taken out if service so frequently.

Currently, damage in the internal structure of the engine, such as that caused by bird-strikes is inspected using an instrument called a ‘Borescope’. This tool is similar to an endoscope which is used by doctors to give an internal view of the body. The Borescope is inserted along the inner rim of the engine and is then used by engineers or mechanics to look for internal damage; however the problem with this is that the resolution of the image is not particularly high. Furthermore, the number of trained Borescope experts around the world is very low and so, this process is time consuming because it may require calling in an expert from halfway around the world. Pat Emmott, a senior vice-president from Rolls-Royce said “We don’t have enough specialists to go around so we need to automate this capability”. This is what led to the development of the robotic snake, which requires no special skills to use in order to carry out a diagnosis.

Although this product is not yet available to airlines, it is believed that the prototype, which is hoped to be 60cm in length and 12.5 mm in width, will be completed by July 2014 and the actual product will be made available by 2018 at the latest. The research and development of this type of technology, being carried out by Rolls-Royce and the snake robot is just a small part of a £2.5 million project, which includes many other products such as a camera chip which can withstand temperatures of 2000oC.

Contributed by Darshan Desai

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