Recently, dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) have gathered interest for soft robotics due to their low cost, light weight, large strain, low power consumption, and high energy density. However, developing reliable, compliant electrodes for DEAs remains an ongoing challenge due to issues with fabrication, uniformity of the conductive layer, and mechanical stiffening of the actuators caused by conductive materials with large Young’s moduli. In this work, we present a method for preparing, patterning, and utilizing conductive fluid electrodes. Further, when we submerse the DEAs in a bath containing a conductive fluid connected to ground, the bath serves as a second electrode, obviating the need for depositing a conductive layer to serve as either of the electrodes required of most DEAs. When we apply a positive electrical potential to the conductive fluid in the actuator with respect to ground, the electric field across the dielectric membrane causes charge carriers in the solution to apply an electrostatic force on the membrane, which compresses the membrane and causes the actuator to deform. We have used this process to develop a tethered submersible robot that can swim in a tank of saltwater at a maximum measured speed of 9.2 mm/s. Since saltwater serves as the electrode, we overcome buoyancy issues that may be a challenge for pneumatically actuated soft robots and traditional, rigid robotics. This research opens the door to low-power underwater robots for search and rescue and environmental monitoring applications.
Caleb Christianson, Nathaniel Goldberg, Shengqiang Cai, and Michael T. Tolley, "Fluid electrodes for submersible robotics based on dielectric elastomer actuators," Proc. SPIE 10163, Electroactive Polymer Actuators and Devices (EAPAD) 2017, 101631O (Presented at SPIE Smart Structures and Materials + Nondestructive Evaluation and Health Monitoring: March 29, 2017; Published: 17 April 2017); https://doi.org/10.1117/12.2257201.
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