How GE's Sensiworm is changing aerospace maintenance

Sensiworm promises to dramatically reduce the downtime of aircraft by enabling on-wing engine inspections and even repairs without the need for disassembly.
Rizwan Choudhury
GE Aerospace’s Sensiworm (Soft ElectroNics Skin-Innervated Robotic Worm)
GE Aerospace’s Sensiworm (Soft ElectroNics Skin-Innervated Robotic Worm)

Source: GE Research/YouTube 

Imagine a future where the tedious and invasive procedures of inspecting and repairing jet engines are as streamlined as minimally invasive surgeries have become in the field of medicine. 

GE Aerospace has introduced something similar with transformative potential for the aerospace industry. Sensiworm (Soft ElectroNics Skin-Innervated Robotic Worm) is GE Aerospace's answer to the age-old conundrum of how to examine and service complicated aerospace equipment without having to take it apart. 

Traditional methods, which involve operators using high-tech video borescopes, often fall short. Enter Sensiworm, a soft robot that can give mechanics unparalleled access to a jet engine's inner workings without disassembling it. A smart and highly sensitive soft robotic worm designed to venture inside jet engines and conduct intricate inspections. 

This move comes as part of the industry’s broader push to deploy minimally invasive technologies that mirror advances made in healthcare, particularly in surgeries where robotic assistance facilitates quicker recovery times for patients.

Inside the Sensiworm

The robot is made of flexible hybrid electronics that combine soft materials with thin-film sensors, actuators, and circuits. These electronics allow the robot to sense its environment and adapt its shape accordingly. The robot can also communicate wirelessly with a remote operator who can control its movements and receive feedback.

Sensiworm resembles an inchworm and is self-contained with on-board power, computing, and pressure resources. The team has showcased the robot's prowess in effortlessly navigating the intricate crevices and contours of jet engine components, actively searching for signs of cracks and corrosion. In other lab-scale demonstrations, Sensiworm has also been shown to accurately inspect and measure the thickness of thermal barrier coatings on engine parts to determine if they are maintaining the proper thickness.

In a press release, Deepak Trivedi, a principal robotics engineer at GE Aerospace Research, explained, "With their soft, compliant design, Sensiworm robots could inspect every inch of a jet engine, transmitting live video and real-time data about the condition of components."

Multi-faceted applications and future capabilities

While initial demonstrations have been concentrated primarily on inspections, Trivedi added that they are "developing new capabilities that would allow these robots to execute repairs once they detect a defect." This multi-functionality could redefine the paradigm of aircraft engine maintenance.

The Sensiworm project has garnered funding and support through SEMI Flex Tech, an industry-led public-private partnership. This collaboration includes Binghamton University, home to the globally recognized Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing (CAMM), and UES, Inc., an Ohio-based R&D organization specializing in aerospace and electronics research.

Gity Samadi, Ph.D., and director of R&D Programs at SEMI Global Headquarters highlighted the project’s importance: “This endeavor 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 CAMM at Binghamton University, expressed his enthusiasm: "Working with GE enables our research team to transition ideas from the lab to real-world applications. We foresee numerous applications of flexible hybrid electronics to enhance human health and safety."

Minimized downtime and enhanced efficiency

Sensiworm has already exhibited its ability to navigate the intricate landscapes within jet engines, providing a more in-depth examination than traditional borescopes. Trivedi concluded, "Sensiworm is a key technical capability required for performing more robust on-wing inspections in the future. This can lead to reduced unnecessary removals, less downtime, and quicker turnaround times."

In the ever-increasing world of air travel for connectivity, efficiency becomes paramount. Sensiworm's ability to carry out inspections and potential repairs without necessitating engine disassembly could be a game-changer for the industry. 

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