Rolls-Royce is Developing Tiny ‘Cockroach’ Robots to Crawl in And Fix Airplane Engines


  • The U.K. engineer said the miniature technology can improve the way maintenance is carried out by speeding up inspections and eliminating the need to remove an engine from an aircraft for repair work to take place.
  • To explore the concept, the Rolls-Royce has teamed up with robotics experts at Harvard University in the U.S. and the University of Nottingham in England.

in a bid to revolutionise the way engines are maintained and repaired, rolls-royce is developing what can only be described as a tiny robot cockroach, that can crawl inside airplane engines to fix them. kitted out with a camera and 3D scanner, these tiny robots would allow engineers to remotely assess problems before tooling them with the necessary equipment to correct the problem.

images courtesy of rolls-royce

the robots are part of rolls royce’s intelligentengine project, a venture announced earlier this year which aims at developing connected engines with the potential to repair themselves. the roach, or SWARM robot as it is actually called, is one of four technologies being developed to fulfil various needs within the engine.

another is FLARE, a snake-like robot that can travel through the engine environment like an endoscope, teaming up with others to patch up damaged thermal barrier coatings. these 10-mm-long (0.4 in) creatures would be able to stream a live feed back to the operator via a small camera for visual inspection, as well as carrying out the important job of carrying the roach-like SWARM robots to the centre of the engine.

as well as robots built to temporarily enter the engine, rolls-royce is developing a pencil-thin INSPECT robot which could be permanently built into the engine. these thermally protected ‘periscopes’ would help to monitor the engine’s health by collecting data and beaming it back to the operations center.

rolls-royce says it is also working on robotic boreblending robots, which would enable non-expert ‘local’ teams to carry out complex maintenance tasks by installing the device. once inside the engine, a dedicated expert back in rolls-royce’s aircraft availability centre could take control rather than needing to travel to the location of an aircraft needing maintenance. short animations of each robot type can be seen below.

videos by rolls-royce

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 boreblending robot, are already being tested and will begin to be introduced over the next few years,’ said dr james kell, rolls-royce on-wing technology specialist.we have a great network of partners who support our work in this field and it is clear that this is an area with the potential to revolutionise how we think about engine maintenance.’