Characterization and application of shape-changing panels with embedded rubber muscle actuators

Larry D. Peel, Enrique Jr Molina, Jeffery W. Baur, Ryan S. Justice

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cylindrical soft actuators efficiently convert fluid pressure into mechanical energy and thus offer excellent force-to-weight ratios while behaving similar to biological muscle. McKibben-like rubber muscle actuators (RMAs) were embedded into neat elastomer and act as shape-changing panels. The effect of actuator spacing and modeling methods on the performance of these panels was investigated. Simulations from nonlinear finite element models were compared with results from test panels containing four RMAs that were spaced 0, 1/2, 1, and 1.3 RMA diameters apart. Nonlinear 'laminated plate' and 'rod & plate' finite element (FE) models of individual (non-embedded) RMAs and panels with embedded RMAs were developed. Due to model complexity and resource limitations, several simplified 2D and 3D FE model types, including a 3D 'Unit Cell' were created. After subtracting the 'activation pressure' needed to initiate contraction, all the models for the individual actuators produced forces consistent with experimental values, but only the more resource-intensive rod & plate models replicated fiber/braid re-orientation and produced more realistic values for actuator contraction. For panel models, the Full 3D rod & plate model appeared to be the most accurate for panel contraction and force, but was not completed for all configurations due to resource limitations. Most embedded panel FE models produced maximum panel actuator force and maximum contraction when the embedded actuators are spaced between 1/2 and 1 diameter apart. Seven panels with embedded RMAs were experimentally fabricated and tested. Panel tests confirmed that maximum or optimal performance occurs when the RMAs are spaced between 1/2 and 1 diameter apart. The tested actuator force was fairly constant in this range, suggesting that minor design or manufacturing differences may not significantly affect panel performance. However, the amount of axial force and contraction decreases significantly at greater than optimal spacing. This multi-faceted work provides useful design, simulation fabrication, and test characteristics for shape-adaptive panels. Bending panels were demonstrated but not modeled. Developers of future shape-adaptive air vehicles have been provided with additional simulation and design tools.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number094020
JournalSmart Materials and Structures
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Signal Processing
  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics
  • General Materials Science
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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