Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Aerospace Engineering

First Advisor

Ashraf Bastawros

Second Advisor

Wei Hong


Inspired by nature, the development of soft actuators has drawn large attention to provide higher flexibility and allow adaptation to more complex environment. This thesis is focused on utilizing electroactive polymers as active materials to develop soft planar dielectric elastomer actuators capable of complex 3D deformation. The potential applications of such soft actuators are in flexible robotic arms and grippers, morphing structures and flapping wings for micro aerial vehicles.

The embraces design for a freestanding actuator utilizes the constrained deformation imposed by surface stiffeners on an electroactive membrane to avert the requirement of membrane pre-stretch and the supporting frames. The proposed design increases the overall actuator flexibility and degrees-of-freedom. Actuator design, fabrication, and performance are presented for different arrangement of stiffeners. Digital images correlation technique were utilized to evaluate the in-plane finite strain components, in order to elucidate the role of the stiffeners in controlling the three dimensional deformation. It was found that a key controlling factor was the localized deformation near the stiffeners, while the rest of the membrane would follow through.

A detailed finite element modeling framework was developed with a user-material subroutine, built into the ABAQUS commercial finite element package. An experimentally calibrated Neo-Hookean based material model that coupled the applied electrical field to the actuator mechanical deformation was employed. The numerical model was used to optimize different geometrical features, electrode layup and stacking sequence of actuators. It was found that by splitting the stiffeners into finer segments, the force-stroke characteristics of actuator were able to be adjusted with stiffener configuration, while keeping the overall bending stiffness. The efficacy of actuators could also be greatly improved by increasing the stiffener periodicity. The developed framework would aid in designing and optimizing the dielectric elastomer actuator configurations for 3D prescribed deformation configuration.

Finally, inspired by the membrane textures of bat wings, a study of utilizing fiber reinforcement on dielectric elastomer actuators were conducted for the mechanical and the coupled electromechanical characteristics. Woven fibers were employed on the surface of actuator membrane with different pre-deformed configurations. Experimentally, actuator stiffness changes were measured for up to four orders of magnitude. The orientation of embedded fibers controlled the level and the triggered phase of stiffness changes. A trade-off between the actuator stiffness and stroke could be controlled during the fabrication stage by the fiber orientation and the prestretch level of the base elastomer membrane. A simplified model using small-strain composite laminate theory was developed and accurately predicted the composite actuator stiffness. Additionally, compliant edge stiffeners were found had to present a marked overall effect on actuator electromechanical response.

The developed simplified analytical solutions using Timoshenko-bimaterial laminate solution and composite laminate theory, as well as the developed finite element framework can be utilized in addressing more complex 3D deformation patterns and their electromechanical response.

Copyright Owner

William Lai



File Format


File Size

113 pages

Included in

Engineering Commons