The maintenance works (e.g. inspection, repair) of aero-engines while still attached on the airframes requires a desirable approach since this can significantly shorten both the time and cost of such interventions as the aerospace industry commonly operates based on the generic concept “power by the hour”. However, navigating and performing a multi-axis movement of an end-effector in a very constrained environment such as gas turbine engines is a challenging task. This paper reports on the development of a highly flexible slender (i.e. low diameter-to-length ratios) continuum robot of 25 degrees of freedom capable to uncoil from a drum to provide the feeding motion needed to navigate into crammed environments and then perform, with its last 6 DoF, complex trajectories with a camera equipped machining end-effector for allowing in-situ interventions at a low-pressure compressor of a gas turbine engine. This continuum robot is a compact system and presents a set of innovative mechatronics solutions such as: (i) twin commanding cables to minimise the number of actuators; (ii) twin compliant joints to enable large bending angles (±90°) arranged on a tapered structure (start from 40 mm to 13 mm at its end); (iii) feeding motion provided by a rotating drum for coiling/uncoiling the continuum robot; (iv) machining end-effector equipped with vision system. To be able to achieve the in-situ maintenance tasks, a set of innovative control algorithms to enable the navigation and end-effector path generation have been developed and implemented. Finally, the continuum robot has been tested both for navigation and movement of the end-effector against a specified target within a gas turbine engine mock-up proving that: (i) max. deviations in navigation from the desired path (1000 mm length with bends between 45° and 90°) are ±10 mm; (ii) max. errors in positioning the end-effector against a target situated at the end of navigation path is 1 mm. Thus, this paper presents a compact continuum robot that could be considered as a step forward in providing aero-engine manufacturers with a solution to perform complex tasks in an invasive manner.
Dong, X., Axinte, D. A., Palmer, D., Cobos, S., Raffles, M., Rabani, A., & Kell, J. (in press). Development of a slender continuum robotic system for on-wing inspection/repair of gas turbine engines. Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing, 44, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rcim.2016.09.004