The term “precision linear actuator, direct drive” (“PLADD”) refers to a robust linear actuator designed to be capable of repeatedly performing, over a lifetime of the order of 5 to 10 years, positioning maneuvers that include, variously, submicron increments or slews of the order of a centimeter. The PLADD is capable of both long stroke (120 mm) and high resolution (repeatable increments of 20 nm). Unlike precise linear actuators of prior design, the PLADD contains no gears, levers, or hydraulic converters. The PLADD, now at the prototype stage of development, is intended for original use as a coarse-positioning actuator in a spaceborne interferometer. The PLADD could also be adapted to terrestrial applications in which there are requirements for long stroke and high resolution: potential applications include medical imaging and fabrication of semiconductor devices.

This Partly Schematic Cross Section depicts some of the components of the PLADD.
The PLADD (see figure) includes a commercially available ball-screw actuator driven directly by a commercially available three-phase brushless DC motor. The ball-screw actuator comprises a spring-preloaded ball nut on a ball screw that is restrained against rotation as described below. The motor is coupled directly (that is, without an intervening gear train) to a drive link that, in turn, is coupled to the ball nut. By eliminating the gear train, the direct-drive design eliminates the complexity, backlash, and potential for misalignment associated with a gear train.

To prevent inadvertent movement, there is a brake that includes flexured levers compressed against the drive link by preload springs. This is a power-off brake: There are also piezoelectric stacks that can be activated to oppose the springs and push the levers away from the drive link. Hence, power must be applied to the piezoelectric stacks to release the drive link from braking.

To help ensure long operational life, all of the mechanical drive components are immersed in an oil bath within hermetically sealed bellows. The outer end of the bellows holds the outer end of the ball screw, thereby preventing rotation of the ball screw.

Positioning is controlled by an electronic control system that includes digital and analog subsystems that interact with the motor and brake and with two sensor/encoder units: a Hall-effect-sensor rotation encoder and a linear glass-scale encoder. This system implements a proportional + integral + derivative control algorithm that results in variation of voltage commands to each of the three pairs of windings of the brushless DC motor. In one of two alternative control modes, the voltages are applied to the windings in a trapezoidal commutation scheme on the basis of timing signals obtained from the Hall-effect sensors; this scheme yields relatively coarse positioning — 24 steps per motor revolution. The second control mode involves a sinusoidal commutation scheme in which the output of the linear glass-scale encoder is transposed to rotational increments to yield much finer position feedback — more than 400,000 steps per revolution.

This work was done by Brant T. Cook, Donald M. Moore, David F. Braun, John S. Koenig, and Steve M. Hankins of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. NPO-45692

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the May, 2009 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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