Snakes on a Plane! That Are Actually Laser-Wielding Robots!

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Why tiny, wriggling machines could be the future of airplane repair

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Imagine this guy -- except tiny, and slithering through the engine of a jet plane. (Image courtesy Dr. Gavin Miller of www.snakerobots.com)

A jet plane's engine has around 100 sensors that track things like air pressure, temperature, and vibration as it propels its cargo over the Earth. Machines on the ground, via diagnostic algorithms, are constantly monitoring the data delivered by those sensors to ensure that the cargo makes it back safely. This process is, though complicated, fairly straightforward -- until, that is, the engine's health analysis detects a problem. What if a bird strike damages a fan, or some errant piece of debris cripples a compressor blade?

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Engineers at firms like Rolls-Royce and General Electric are developing devices that will be specialized to find and then repair problems in plane engines. And they are being referred to -- mostly if not completely unironically -- as "snake robots." The viperoid machines, planned for a July 2014 release, would be about half an inch in diameter. They'd be bolted to an engine but controlled by a technician, who would guide them through the engine's insides as they beam back images. The whole process would be, a Rolls-Royce executive said, a bit like telesurgery.

As New Scientist put itbecause somebody had to: "Just sometimes, snakes on a plane can be a good thing."

Actually, they could be a very good thing. Currently, engines' diagnostic work is done with a borescope, a fiber-optic instrument that's basically a machine-targeted version of our medical endoscope. A technician inserts the borescope into one of several centimeter-wide ports that stud the surface of an engine; from there, he or she can examine the engine from the inside, troubleshooting accordingly. The problem with this method, however, is that it requires its own kind of specialization. Rolls-Royce, for example, New Scientist notes, monitors 14,000 engines flown by 500 airlines on 4,000 aircraft worldwide. Borescope operation being a specific skill, there simply aren't enough technicians who are knowledgeable about using the device to do the kind of regular-but-haphazard diagnostic work that safe air travel requires.

The other problem -- and arguably the bigger problem -- is that once an issue is detected, technicians usually have little choice but to disassemble the engine to make the needed repair. This requires whole planes to be taken out of commission, which in turn can cost airlines millions of dollars.

Wriggling robots, controlled by human technicians, could mitigate those challenges. The devices -- currently under wraps pending patent filings -- would carry not only cameras, but also UV lasers (to make the edges of blade fractures fluoresce) and a grinding tool to sand down things like damaged compressor blades. And they would be able to survive, it not operate within, the 3,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures at running engines' core. For all this, though, robotic snakes face a decidedly low-tech challenge: gravity. Slithering robots, robotics pioneer Rob Buckingham noted, are meant to do more than crawl on the ground. And the longer the snake, the more likely it is to droop at its end.

New Scientist via @jadabumrad

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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