These worm-inspired robots could one day crawl through airplane engines

An airplane’s engine is a maze of twisting, rotating pipelines that carry fluids and gases throughout the machine. These geometries can make pipeline inspections extremely difficult.

A team of roboticists took inspiration from nature to develop a new, more efficient method. Their invention – mechanical earthworms with “muscles” made of dielectric elastomer actuators and “feet” made from a carbon fiber composite – is described in a paper published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal of reading Scientific robotics.

“Current methods of inspecting aircraft engines are time-consuming and require highly skilled engineers,” said mechanical engineer Huichan Zhao, one of the co-authors. THAT IS TO SAY. “In the future, we hope to see robots do such work to save time and effort,” she says.

Images of the robot with a camera installed in front and the robot inspecting the environment in a stainless steel pipe at a driving frequency of 1 Hz. Scale bars, 10 mm. Source.

Tiny pipelines impose many design constraints

It is not the first robot designed to inspect centimeter and millimeter scale pipes. Other designs rely on wheels or other means for crawling or walking in enclosed spaces. But those solutions aren’t always practical, according to the researchers behind the new paper. One reason is that conditions can vary widely from pipeline to pipeline, even within the same engine. These designs may also struggle to perform the two equally important tasks for this type of robot: locomotion and inspection.

To alleviate these limitations, engineers turned to pneumatic robots that use pressurized air to move their full length, crawling like a caterpillar. These are easier to seal and shrink on a small scale because they don’t have intricate protrusions like wheels or legs. However, these bots tend to be slow. It’s a liability – and a potential expense – if the bot has to inspect a long pipeline.

From caterpillars to earthworms

The new design powers its locomotion in a completely different way. Instead of pressurized air, the earthworm-like device uses electrical charges to ripple its way through a pipe using a combination of longer “lengthening units” and “anchoring units “shorter.

These worm-inspired robots could one day crawl through airplane engines
A schematic drawing of the robot.

“La technologie clé est constituée de muscles artificiels[égalementappelés”actionneurssouples”ou”actionneursenélastomèrediélectrique”)quisontsuffisammentpuissantsetsuffisammentpetitspourentraînerlerobotàsedéplacerrapidementdansuntuyau”expliqueZhaoLeschargesprovoquentunecontractionrapidedesactionneurspermettantàlamachinede185poucedelong(47mm)desedéplaceràunevitessed’unelongueurdecorpsparsecondeLerobotestcomposédesegmentsquipeuventêtreemboîtésavecdesaimantscequipermetàl’opérateurdepersonnaliserlaconceptionexacteenfonctiondesspécificationsdelaligneàinspecter[alsocalled”softactuators”or“dielectricelastomeractuators”)thatarepowerfulenoughandsmallenoughtodrivetherobottomoverapidlyinapipe”ZhaosaysThechargescausetheactuatorstorapidlycontractallowingthe185-inch-long(47mm)machinetomoveatarateofonebodylengthpersecondTherobotismadeofsegmentsthatcanbesnappedtogetherwithmagnetsallowingtheoperatortocustomizetheexactdesignbasedonthespecificationofthelinethatneedsinspecting[égalementappelés”actionneurssouples”ou”actionneursenélastomèrediélectrique”)quisontsuffisammentpuissantsetsuffisammentpetitspourentraînerlerobotàsedéplacerrapidementdansuntuyau”expliqueZhaoLeschargesprovoquentunecontractionrapidedesactionneurspermettantàlamachinede185poucedelong(47mm)desedéplaceràunevitessed’unelongueurdecorpsparsecondeLerobotestcomposédesegmentsquipeuventêtreemboîtésavecdesaimantscequipermetàl’opérateurdepersonnaliserlaconceptionexacteenfonctiondesspécificationsdelaligneàinspecter[alsocalled”softactuators”or“dielectricelastomeractuators”)thatarepowerfulenoughandsmallenoughtodrivetherobottomoverapidlyinapipe”ZhaosaysThechargescausetheactuatorstorapidlycontractallowingthe185-inch-long(47mm)machinetomoveatarateofonebodylengthpersecondTherobotismadeofsegmentsthatcanbesnappedtogetherwithmagnetsallowingtheoperatortocustomizetheexactdesignbasedonthespecificationofthelinethatneedsinspecting

“We can put such a robot in the pipeline of an aircraft engine and navigate it through the pipeline to the end, while returning all the images along the way,” Zhao says.

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