If a German tells you “Da ist der Wurm drin!“ [There’s a worm in there!], it generally points to a problem. If GE Aerospace Research were to say the same, the phrase would take on a much more positive meaning. Afterall, they’d be referring to their ‘Sensiworm’ – a nature-inspired, miniature addition to their future workforce, responsible for future On-Wing jet engine inspection and repair.
Sensiworm’s full name is ‘Soft ElectroNics Skin-Innervated Robotic Worm’, and it denotes a “highly intelligent, acutely sensitive soft robot that could serve as extra sets of eyes and ears for Aerospace service operators inside the engine,” according to GE Aerospace’s recent press release. Sensiworm is the result of collaboration between the GE Aerospace Research team and its partners, Binghamton University, (home to the world-class Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing - CAMM), and UES, Inc, (an Ohio-based R&D organization involved in many advanced technology projects with commercial and military entities), and is funded by SEMI Flex Tech, (industry-led public/private partnership focused on advancing innovative hybrid electronics developments), and the US Army Research Lab.
“Mini” Robot Inspector Companions
Deepak Trivedi, Principal Robotics Engineer, GE Aerospace Research, commented the collaboration: “Our partnership with SEMI Flex Tech, Binghamton University, and UES has provided an incredible platform to accelerate the development of our Sensiworm robot,” emphasizing the partners’ importance and support in bringing new technologies into real business operations.
“We still have more developments ahead with Sensiworm. But the early results from our demonstrations show that we indeed have real ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to deploying future robotic solutions in aircraft engine services. With mini-robot companions like Sensiworm, service operators would have multiple additional sets of eyes and ears to perform on-wing inspections. With their soft, compliant design, they could inspect every inch of jet engine transmitting live video and real-time data about the condition of parts that operators typically check. Sensiworm can even measure the thickness of thermal barrier coatings on parts that are applied to protect the parts from heat. Currently, our demonstrations have primarily been focused on the inspection of engines. But we’re developing new capabilities that would allow these robots to execute repair once they find a defect as well.”
Additional eyes and ears
A little unsettling to watch, since the human brain wants to associate the animal-like movement with a real creature in its mind eye, the Sensiworm - an “untethered soft robotics, electronic skin-innervated platform” – moves like an inchworm would. Unlike the actual inchworm, as the miniature robot makes its way “through the crevasses and curves of jet engine parts”, it detects part defects or corrosion, and measures the thickness of thermal barrier coatings, giving feedback on the overall state of the jet engine to its human aerospace service operators. Those same operators currently use video borescopes to ascertain turbine-internal conditions, however even those highly specialized instruments have their limits in application. “Deploying self-propelling, compliant robots like Sensiworm would give operators virtually unfettered access in the future to perform inspections without having to disassemble the engine,” the release is certain. “Sensiworm is […] self-contained, with on-board power, compute, and pressure resources. [It] can be deployed through the turbine inlet or exhaust of an engine and provide coverage of a much larger swath of the turbine that would otherwise be missed using traditional borescopes, bespoke robotic devices, or snake platforms utilizing conventional port access points.”
Gity Samadi, PhD, Director of R&D Programs, SEMI Global Headquarters, said: “This project demonstrates our commitment to progress in Flexible Hybrid Electronics and beyond. It embodies the principles that drive our R&D funding consortium, mitigating risks for breakthrough technology that propels industry advancement.”
Mark Poliks, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing at Binghamton University, stated: “Working with GE allows our research team to help move ideas from the lab into the real world, which is exciting for me and my students alike. We look forward to seeing Sensiworm in action and to future collaborations with our industry partners in New York State and beyond. There are so many ways we can use flexible hybrid electronics to improve human health and safety.”
Part person, part worm – tomorrow’s workforce
Not only does Sensiworm open up next level on-wing inspections, reaching otherwise difficult to check areas, and relaying detailed information on the state of the engine, resulting in faster processes (As the press release illustrates: “This can reduce unnecessary removals and downtime and enable faster turnaround times to keep engines at peak operational availability.”), but aircraft maintenance is yet another of the aviation job fields that could seriously be lacking in personnel in the coming years, if recruitment drives aren’t increased. Boeing's Pilot and Technician Outlook 2022-2041, published towards the end of last year, forecasted that “the industry will need as many as 610,000 new civil maintenance technicians over course of the next 20 years”, whilst on 31MAY23, The Boss Magazine reported that “The aviation mechanic shortage will only grow in the coming years as more mechanics enter retirement. An estimated 49% of aircraft mechanics are over 40 years old today, and only 27% are under 30. This indicates a growing lack of recruiting in the industry for young people.”
So, basically, the worm - and any similarly intelligent relatives – needs to get in there!
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