C2I 2022: Manufacturing Technology winner - Snakes Everywhere!
An advanced snake-like robot originally developed for the aerospace sector could ultimately transform in-situ maintenance and manufacturing operations in a range of difficult to access environments
Category: Manufacturing Technology - sponsored by High Value Manufacturing Catapult
Headline sponsor: Babcock International Group
Project: Snakes Everywhere - from aerospace to medical and beyond
Partners: Rolls-Royce Plc with the University of Nottingham
Avoiding downtime is a priority for any engineering business. And for Rolls-Royce plc, whose pioneering “power by the hour” business model hinges on asset availability, the requirement for technology that can keep jet engines running and avoid disruption has long been a key driver of innovation.
The company’s latest tool - the winner of this year’s C2I award’s manufacturing technology category - represents an exciting advance in this fast-moving area that could benefit not just the aerospace sector, but a host of application areas in difficult to access environments.
Developed through a long-running partnership with researchers at the University of Nottingham, the snake-like continuum robot is a flexible snake-like robot capable of carrying a range of tools for performing advanced processes within a jet engine without having to remove it from the wing. Rolls-Royce claims the device is more adaptable, more dextrous, and easier to control than existing commercially available in-situ devices (such as borescopes) which lack the reach and dexterity to perform challenging tasks such as component repair or maintenance.
Straddling disciplines including robotics, mechatronics, photonics, and system integration, the team behind the technology has progressed the concept through to industrialisation, and is now working with a range of partners to make the leap from Technology Readiness Level 6 to full commercialisation.
Rolls-Royce In-Situ Technology Specialist Andy Norton, explained to The Engineer that the initiative builds on a number of earlier snake robot projects run by the Rolls-Royce and Nottingham teams and supported through the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK.
These projects include COBRA (which saw the development of a long-thin snake robot with modular actuator pack); FLARE (a project leading to two robotic snakes which work together to carry out in-situ coating repairs), CHIMERA (a semi-autonomous robot for pressure vessel inspection) and REINSTATE (which made advances in advanced actuation, sensing, and control). The latest system, Norton explained, represents “a more scalable, more robust, more adaptable, and more field-ready system than shown through previous projects.”
The availability of snake robotic tools will enable more work to be done in-situ, more work to be undertaken remotely or autonomously, and allow more complex repair methods to be undertaken
Andy Norton - In-Situ Technology Specialist, Rolls-Royce Plc
Deployment of the technology could, he said, have some major benefits for the civil aviation sector. “Extending time on-wing and reducing the number of unplanned engine removals is vital for business sustainability.” What’s more, he explained, it has some compelling advantages over existing methods: “Whilst conventional tools such as borescopes and boreblenders exist today which are highly successful at assessing engine health and remedying features such as compressor foreign object damage, the availability of snake robotic tools will enable more work to be done in-situ, more work to be undertaken remotely or autonomously, and allow more complex repair methods to be undertaken.”
Norton added that advanced technologies such as this are actually essential in order for maintenance systems to keep up with continued advances in engine technology. “As engine architectures and materials become more complex to improve fuel efficiency, the repair and maintenance of these parts through-life becomes increasingly challenging – only through the deployment of a dexterous and commercially ready snake robotic system could such in-situ repairs even be envisaged.”
The technologically complex nature of the project has, unsurprisingly, required high levels of collaboration. “The technology is complex and multi-faceted (the robotic hardware, the control and software, the inspection and repair tool on the tip),” said Norton. “My role is to bring together the right people with the right specialisms, and apply the necessary systems thinking and project governance, to ensure project success.”
Beyond the immediate project there has also been extensive collaboration with the broader research network on the development of the tools and processes that could be deployed by the robot. “This includes work with Metallisation on coating repairs, OpTek on laser ablation, and Clifton Photonics on contamination analysis,” said Norton. “Over the coming years these miniaturised end-effectors will be mature enough and fully validated for use within an aeroengine, providing further benefits to Rolls-Royce and its customers.”
Although originally developed for in-situ aerospace repair applications, the technology has potential in a range of environments where access is restricted. Indeed, versions of the robot have already been successfully demonstrated in fields including nuclear, telecoms, infrastructure, and even surgery. “The team have collaborated with end users in other sectors such as nuclear and oil & gas…” said Norton. “In nuclear decommissioning for example, there are limitations on how much time manual operators are able to perform tasks inside hazardous environments; through the UK government funded RAIN project the Nottingham team have developed prototype glovebox inspection snakes which can be operated from the outside world thereby increasing productivity. In oil and gas there are a network of pipes and storage vessels which periodically need inspecting and repairing but which cannot be readily accessed by mechanics without taking the asset offline; through the CHIMERA project the team worked with Forth Engineering and Metallisation to demonstrate a potential method of in-situ repairs using the snake.”
The University of Nottingham team has even been collaborating with a leading UK throat surgeon to understand the viability of the snake robotic tool for addressing throat and voice-box cancers.
The project team are currently in the process of industrialising the system and working with a number of different companies to ensure that the technology has all the right attributes to be used in the field. “Whilst further development work is required over the next year or so, it is expected that Rolls-Royce will soon start to be able to use such devices for complex inspections within the global network, thereby helping to keep jet engines on-wing and reducing customer disruption.”