Remote Control Blade Runners

Are robots the turbine mechanics of the future?


The inside of a working gas turbine is a harsh environment. It’s unbearably hot. Spinning blades are in continual motion. These factors make it challenging to inspect and repair turbines without taking them out of service. But engineers at GE’s Global Research Center are working on a solution—and it involves a fleet of tiny experimental robots.

To view turbine blades and diagnose issues, engineers typically use a camera called a borescope that they drop through a hole in the turbine shell. While the camera offers helpful insight, once the problem is located, the turbine has to be shut down and opened for repair.

Turbine mechanics report that impellor blade failure is the most common turbine maintenance issue since blades are exposed to steam and hot gas, and vulnerable to pressure cracking and chipping from foreign objects. And a simple chip or crack in the protective coating of a blade can easily cause 12 hours of downtime.

Scientists in GE’s Global Research Center are working on a creative, high-tech solution—specifically, a series of tiny robots that can maneuver around blades—as part of “The Turbine Surgeon” project.

As TechCrunch reports, one prototype currently in development is a small pivoting camera that can move between the blades while the turbine is in operation. Another experimental robot can perform turbine maintenance without opening the turbine casing. An operator can control it with a virtual joy stick app on a smart phone. The robot can open a repair module, squeeze some material onto a turbine blade’s flawed coating, and smooth it out using a paddle attachment tool.

“In addition to saving time, by executing repairs as soon as they’re discovered, we can reduce the amount of any further damage to our components. This is akin to doing a heavy fluoride treatment when a small breach in tooth enamel is discovered instead of treating a full-blown cavity later,” Kori Macdonald, a robotics engineer at the GE Global Research Center explained.

This project shows a refreshing willingness to address the challenges of turbine inspection and repair from new perspectives and with advanced technologies. What other innovative maintenance solutions can you imagine? DE_bug_web


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