After algorithms spot a problem, snake-like robots may one day be used to investigate faulty engines, saving time and money
JUST sometimes, snakes on a plane can be a good thing. Snake-like robots wielding UV lasers may soon slither deep inside aircraft engines to seek out and repair damage, according to the British jet engine maker Rolls-Royce. Once it is up and running, the technology should help airlines deal with potential engine problems on the spot to keep planes in the air and avoid delays for passengers.
The idea for the snake robot stems partly from the fact that engine makers like Rolls-Royce and General Electric in the US routinely use intelligent algorithms to monitor the health of plane engines in flight. The software analyses data sent from around 100 pressure, temperature and vibration sensors embedded in each engine. These algorithms flag up trouble spots. But taking a plane out of service to strip down the engine can cost an airline millions of dollars - so technologies that can quickly inspect them are needed.
Right now, such checks are performed using a fibre-optic instrument called a borescope, a heavy-duty version of a medical endoscope. It is inserted in one of many 10 millimetre-wide ports dotted around a jet engine, allowing an engineer to look for, say, bird-strike damage to a fan or compressor blade. The trouble is, with Rolls-Royce monitoring 14,000 of its engines, flown by 500 airlines on 4000 aircraft worldwide, there are not enough borescope experts at all the airports the planes visit to do this diagnostic work.