Bending actuators of a proposed type would partly resemble ordinary bending actuators, but would include simple additional components that would render them capable of exerting large forces at small displacements. Like an ordinary bending actuator, an actuator according to the proposal would include a thin rectangular strip that would comprise two bonded layers (possibly made of electroactive polymers with surface electrodes) and would be clamped at one end in the manner of a cantilever beam. Unlike an ordinary bending actuator, the proposed device would include a rigid flat backplate that would support part of the bending strip against backward displacement; because of this feature, the proposed device is called a backed bending actuator.

When an ordinary bending actuator is inactive, the strip typically lies flat, the tip displacement is zero, and the force exerted by the tip is zero. During activation, the tip exerts a transverse force and undergoes a bending displacement that results from the expansion or contraction of one or more of the bonded layers. The tip force of an ordinary bending actuator is inversely proportional to its length; hence, a long actuator tends to be weak.

A Backed Bending Actuator would resemble an ordinary bending actuator except that it would include a backplate that would enable a large displacement together with a large force at small displacements.

The figure depicts an ordinary bending actuator and the corresponding backed bending actuator. The bending, the tip displacement (d), and the tip force (F) exerted by the ordinary bending actuator are well approximated by the conventional equations for the loading and deflection of a cantilever beam subject to a bending moment which, in this case, is applied by the differential expansion or contraction of the bonded layers. The bending, displacement, and tip force of the backed bending actuator are calculated similarly, except that it is necessary to account for the fact that the force Fb that resists the displacement of the tip could be sufficient to push part of the strip against the backplate; in such a condition, the cantilever beam would be effectively shortened (length L*) and thereby stiffened and, hence, made capable of exerting a greater tip force for a given degree of differential expansion or contraction of the bonded layers.

Taking all of these effects into account, the cantilever-beam equations show that Fb would be approximately inversely proportional to d1/2 for d less than a calculable amount, denoted the transition displacement (dt). For d < dt, part of the strip would be pressed against the backplate. Therefore, the force Fb would be very large for d at or near zero and would decrease as d increases toward dt. At d > dt, none of the strip would be pressed against the backplate and Fb would equal the tip force F of the corresponding ordinary bending actuator. The advantage of the proposal is that a backed bending actuator could be made long to obtain large displacement when it encountered little resistance but it could also exert a large zero-displacement force, so that it could more easily start the movement of a large mass, throw a mechanical switch, or release a stuck mechanism.

This work was done by Robert C. Costen and Ji Su of Langley Research Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at under the Mechanics category.