There is great interest in making shape-changing aircraft structures that are more biomimetic. Cylindrical McKibben-like flexible 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 elastomer panels. The effect of actuator spacing on the performance of these shape-changing panels was investigated. The work included nonlinear finite element analysis, fabrication, and testing of panels where four RMAs were spaced side-by-side, 1/2, 1, and 1.3 RMA diameters apart.

Nonlinear “Laminated Plate” and “Rod & Plate” finite element models of individual RMAs were created from existing RMA dimensions. After adjusting for an initial “activation pressure,” the models produced realistic RMA forces. The laminated plate models used less computer resources, but only produced small amounts of actuator contraction (actuator strain). The more resource-intensive Rod & Plate models better replicated fiber/braid re-orientation and produced axial strains up to 60% of test values. Three types of embedded RMA panel FEA models; a “2D Cross-Section,” a “Full 3D Panel” (with either Laminated Plate or Rod & Plate RMAs) and a “3D Unit Cell” (also with either Laminated Plate or Rod & Plate RMAs). The Full 3D Rod & Plate model gave the most accurate strains and forces, but required unsustainable levels of computing resources. The 2D cross-section model predicted optimal RMA spacing to be at 1 diameter. All other FEA models show optimal panel performance between 1/2 and 1 diameter spacing.

Panels with embedded RMAs were fabricated and tested with air or water pressure. Panel force as a function of pressure and as a function of contraction (strain) was obtained.

Overall, FEA and test results for panels indicate that optimal performance occurs when the RMAs are spaced between 1/2 to 1 diameter apart. Actuator force as a function of spacing is fairly flat in this region, indicating that minor design or manufacturing differences may not significantly affect performance. However, the total amount of axial contraction decreases significantly at greater than optimal spacing. Useful design, simulation, and test methodologies for embedded RMA panels have been demonstrated.

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