In a very real way, EAP and its related active polymer technologies such as McKibben actuators (and SMA to some extent) represent a sea change in humanity's technology. Since the beginning of the industrial age, our technology has been, by and large, a hard technology. The label "hard" is literally true from the standpoint of materials and systems. Structures tend to break rather than bend and systems tend to fail rather than degrade gracefully. Systems and structures tend to be divided physically and conceptually into discrete elements. EAP and its brethren, however, are undeniably âsoft.â Moreover, they are soft in terms of system control as much as in material properties.
As applied to robotics, the promise of EAP and "musclelike" actuators lies on two major fronts. First, as the moniker "musclelike" suggests, these actuators will make possible robotic systems that more closely resemble biological systems. This resemblance extends not only to the physical structure of the system, but also to the dynamics, control, programming, and, ultimately, use of these systems. As humans have much more varied goals than does nature itself, the biological systems should also inspire designs that expand the use of muscle actuators beyond the applications to be found in nature. Second, muscle actuator technology joins MEMS as a tool for the realization of so-called smart structures. One can easily conceive of robots for which structure, actuation, and sensing are so tightly interwoven as to be one system. With the progress in computing power, such smart structures could be the basis for robots that are flexible, both in form and function.
Online access to SPIE eBooks is limited to subscribing institutions.