Rolls-Royce has demonstrated how tiny bug and snake-like robots could be used to fix aircraft engines.

The company says the technology is at ''varying levels of maturity'' but says the robots could mean engine maintenance can be done more quickly and avoid the expensive process of removing them from wings and taking them apart for inspection.

Engines also have to cool down to allow people to work on them whereas heat-proof robots wouldn't have to.

Rolls-Royce teamed up with academics from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University and demonstrated the technology at the Farnborough Airshow.


The technologies on display included:

Swarm robots – a set of collaborative, miniature robots, each around 10mm in diameter which would put in the centre of an engine via a 'snake' robot and would then perform a visual inspection of hard to reach areas by crawling through the engine. These robots would carry small cameras that provide a live video feed back to the operator allowing them to complete a rapid visual inspection of the engine.

Inspect robots – a network of 'periscopes' permanently embedded within the engine, enabling it to inspect itself using the periscope cameras to spot and report any maintenance requirements. These pencil-sized robots are thermally protected from the extreme heat generated within an engine and the visual data they create would be used alongside the millions of data points already generated by today's engines as part of their engine health monitoring systems.

Remote bore blending robots – Robotic bore blending machines can be remotely controlled by specialist engineers to perform complicated maintenance tasks, such as repairing damaged compressor blades using lasers to grind parts. This could be done by non-expert 'local' teams who would simply install the tool in the engine and then hand control of it over to an expert back at Rolls-Royce who would then direct its work remotely. This removes the need for specialist teams to travel to the location of an aircraft needing maintenance, vastly reducing the time required to return it to service.

A prototype swarm robot that is about 10mm in diameter. Photo / Supplied
A prototype swarm robot that is about 10mm in diameter. Photo / Supplied

Flare snakes:

A pair of 'snake' robots which are flexible enough to travel through an engine, like an endoscope, before collaborating to carrying out patch repairs to damaged thermal barrier coatings.

Rolls-Royce technology specialist James Kell said miniature robots had the potential to revolutionise the way engines were maintained.

"While some of these technologies, such as the Swarm robots, are still a long way from becoming an everyday reality, others, such as the remote bore blending robot, are already being tested and will begin to be introduced over the next few years,'' he said.


Hundreds of Rolls-Royce Trent engines used on Dreamliners have been ordered to have more checks after compressor and turbine blade problems.

In some cases engines have to be taken off the wing and shipped to maintenance centres in Singapore and in England.

In 2017 Rolls-Royce spent £1.4 billion ($2.7b) on research and development.

The company will take a heavy financial hit because to the Trent engine problems but employs 55,000 people in 50 countries.

About 19,400 of these are engineers.