In a realisation of its IntelligentEngine vision, Rolls-Royce has pioneered a new technical solution – using AI and IoT together to build smarter jet engines.

We tend to think of the internet as outside of the physical world. A digital thing is an ephemeral thing. Sure, we’re all embedded in the world wide web now. But its sticky threads are invisible to the eye. You can’t spot the line that links one connected device to another; you can’t see where it begins or where it ends.

Now, in 2020, the number of physical objects equipped with sensors and linked to wireless networks continues to multiply exponentially. Light bulbs. Refrigerators. Coffee makers. Automobiles. And aircraft. All of them connected to the cloud. All of them part of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).

Yet the tech that makes it possible to hook a computer up to an appliance isn’t all that revolutionary. In fact, it was in 1990 that a software entrepreneur named John Romkey invented the first IoT device – a toaster he could control by a computer. But, back then, the idea was more of a quirky amusement than a consumer product revolution. Less seismic shift, more sideshow.

Today, however, it’s clear that Romkey was on to something with quite extraordinary potential.

From 2015-2020, the number of ‘smart’ devices grew from 3.8bn to nearly 10bn. And, by 2025, the number of IoT devices is expected to balloon to 21bn.

The ultimate ‘smart’ device: the jet engine

The ultimate ‘smart’ device: the jet engine

Of course, the real power of IoT isn't connectivity – it’s the data. If every device collects information, that wealth of information can be used to learn new things. And the devices themselves can become more useful. Better. Smarter, even.

Now, Rolls-Royce is endeavouring to build the smartest jet engines yet.

In the past few years, we have been installing an increasing number of data-gathering IoT sensors into our products. The data these devices generate is aggregated and then analysed in the cloud. Already, this information helps make predictions about maintenance and service needs of a particular engine based on the performance of many other engines of the same model.

Nowadays, the internal operations of these smart engines aren’t monitored on just an individual basis. Engineers can now look at how every single one of these engines’ parameters perform over time – or they can look at all of them at once.

Monitoring connected jet engines

Rolls-Royce has an installed base of more than 13,000 civil aerospace jet engines in service around the world.

The IoT helps us keep tabs on all of them – and keep them healthy by servicing them precisely on time. And that’s just for starters.

“For me, a big chunk of it is about connecting things,” says Sachin Gupta, Chief of IoT Capability at Rolls-Royce. “And IoT will be at the heart of the entire journey. Because you’re going to connect everything. Every part of the [aircraft] – from the doors to the lights and everything else – is going to get connected.

“If you think about it, each of us now carries at least two or three – and sometimes even four – connected devices. This was not the case before. So, yes, it's growing. IoT is coming on strong. And step one is going to be developing the connectivity. That's going to be the journey that every company is on.”

The IoT technology being developed at Gupta’s lab can now help highlight the optimal flight path – in terms of speed and fuel efficiency – for an aircraft at any point in time, for example.

Of course, when every component of an aircraft engine is connected, and all of them include inbuilt data-generating sensors, the result will be a wealth of digital information. This knowledge can help us build even better machines – but actually sifting through every last byte is beyond human capability.

To illustrate the scale of data Rolls-Royce now creates through IoT, consider that we made around 6,000 fan blades for aircraft engines in 2019 at one facility alone. And this massive production generated around three petabytes of data.

How big is a petabyte? Well, start by taking 4,000 pictures with your phone. Now do it every day – for the rest of your life. And eventually the file size of all those snaps will be near one petabyte.

Now multiply that by three. That’s how much information IoT generates at Rolls-Royce, just from making fan blades over the course of a year. But data is collected at every point of the product lifecycle, from design to testing and through to creation and maintenance.

Fortunately, all this valuable data needn’t go to waste. At least not if Dr. Terence Hung, Chief of Computational Engineering at Rolls-Royce, has anything to do with it.

“All capabilities will deliver value to the businesses,” he says. Dr. Hung leads an R&D team that specialises in data analytics and machine learning. “The analysis of the collected data can be translated into actionable insights to help enhance product and service quality at pace.”

In 2013, Rolls-Royce partnered with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to launch the Rolls-Royce@NTU Corporate Lab. The organisation combines the industrial expertise and business capabilities of Rolls-Royce with the research skills and academic acumen of NTU.

According to Hung, the lab focuses on three main areas: electrical and control systems, data analytics and complex systems, and manufacturing and repair technology.

Of all his projects, however, Hung believes the data-analysing tool called Smart Discovery (SD) holds the most promise. And not simply because it can decipher the colossal volume of data churned out by IoT.

“I believe Smart Discovery has the potential to deliver the most impact,” he says. “It’s targeted at enabling many of our engineers to exploit data science capabilities on a regular basis. There are potentially more applications that can leverage SD within the company. It’s my belief that SD can drastically transform the way we enable digital transformation by instilling a rich digital DNA in the company, where everyone can carry out data-driven analysis and innovation.”

While the impact of Smart Discovery has the potential to be huge, as Hung points out, it’s just one part of our pioneering IntelligentEngine vision. Rolls-Royce is committed to leveraging new technology to progress aviation – that’s our pioneering IntelligentEngine vision, which we announced at the Singapore Airshow in 2018. 

Digital technology is rapidly reshaping aviation. Before the Internet of Things, there was no way to gather so much useful data about every single jet engine manufactured. Before artificial intelligence, it wasn’t humanly possible to interpret the monumental scale of this information. But Rolls-Royce can now track, monitor and learn from the engines we build like never before. And these learnings will lead to new technologies and new ways of working.

Essentially, these engines, equipped by IoT and interpreted by AI, are now clever enough to help us engineer even smarter engines.


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