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Hareesha N G, Asst. Prof, DSCE,


Characteristics of actuating system: weight,
power-to-weight ratio, operating pressure,
stiffness vs. compliance, Use of reduction
comparison of hydraulic, electric, pneumatic
Hydraulic actuators-proportional feedback
Electric motors: DC motors, Reversible AC
motors, Brushless DC motors
Stepper motors- structure and principle of
operation, speed-torque characteristics

Actuators are the muscles of robots.
If you imagine that the links and the joints are the
skeleton of the robot, the actuators act as muscles,
which move or rotate the links to change the
configuration of robots.
The actuator must have enough power to accelerate
and decelerate the links and to carry the loads, be
light, economical, accurate, responsive, reliable, and
easy to maintain.
There are many types of actuators available.
Electric motors
Stepper motors
Direct-drive electric motors
Hydraulic actuators
Pneumatic actuators
Shape memory metal actuators
Magneto-strictive actuators

Electric motors especially servomotors are the
most commonly used robotic actuators.
Hydraulic systems were very popular for large robots in
the past and are still around in many places, but are not
used in new robots as often any more.
Direct drive electric motors, the shape memory metal
type-actuators, and others like them are mostly in
research and development stage and may become
more useful in the near future.


It is important to consider the weight of the actuating system,
as well as its power-to-weight ratio.
For example, the power-to-weight ratio of electric systems is
Stepper motors are generally heavier than servomotors for
the same power and thus have a lower power-to-weight ratio.
The higher the voltage of an electric motor, the better powerto-weight ratio it has.
Pneumatic cylinders deliver the lowest power-to-weight ratio.
Hydraulic systems have the highest power-to-weight ratio.
However, it is important to realize that in these systems, the
weight is actually composed of two portions. One is the
hydraulic actuator, and the other is the hydraulic power unit.
The system's power unit consists of a pump, which generates
the high pressure needed to operate the cylinders and rams,
a reservoir, filters, electric drive motors to drive the pump,
cooling units, valves, etc.


Ratio, Operating
The actuators' role is only to move the joints.
However, the power unit is normally stationary and located
somewhere away from the robot itself.
The power is brought to the robot via an umbilical tether
Thus, the actual power-to-weight ratio of the cylinders is
very high for the moving parts.
However, the power unit, which is very heavy, does not
move and is not counted in this ratio.
If the power unit must also move with the robot, the total
power-to-weight ratio will be much less.
The power that the hydraulic system delivers is also very
high, due to high operating pressures.
This may range from 55 psi to 5,000 psi pressures.
Pneumatic cylinders normally operate around 100 to 120 psi.
The higher pressures in hydraulic systems mean higher
powers, but they also require higher maintenance, and if a
leak occurs, they can become more dangerous.

Stiffness vs. Compliance

Stiffness is the resistance of a material against
It may be the stiffness of a beam against bending under
the load, the resistance of a gas against compression in
a cylinder under load and so on.
The stiffer the system, the larger the load that is needed
to deform it. Conversely, the more compliant the
system, the easier it deforms under the load.
Stiffness is directly related to the modulus of elasticity of
the material.
The modulus of elasticity of fluids can be around 1 x 10 6
psi, which is very high.
As a result, hydraulic systems are very stiff and
noncompliant. Conversely, pneumatic systems are easily
compressed, and, thus, are compliant.
Stiff systems have a more rapid response to changing
loads and pressures and are more accurate.
Obviously, if a system is compliant, it can easily deform
(or compress) under changing load or changing driving
force, and, thus, will be inaccurate.

Stiffness vs. Compliance

Similarly, if a small driving force is applied to a hydraulic
ram, due to its stiffness, it will respond more rapidly and
more accurately than a pneumatic system, which can
deform under the same load.
Additionally, the stiffer the system, the less it gives or
deforms under load, and thus the more accurately it holds
its position.
Now consider a robot that is used to insert an integrated
circuit chip into a circuit board.
If the system is not stiff enough, the robot will not be able
to push the chip into the board, since the actuator may
deform under the resistive force.
On the other hand, if the part and the holes are not
perfectly aligned, a stiff system cannot give enough to
prevent damage to the robot or the part, whereas a
compliant system will give to prevent damage.
So, although stiffness causes a more responsive and more
accurate system, it also creates a danger if all things are
not always perfect.
Thus, a working balance is needed between these two
competing characteristics.

Use of Reduction Gears

Some systems, such as hydraulic devices, produce very
large forces with short strokes.
This means that the hydraulic ram may be moved very
slightly while delivering its full force.
As a result, there is no need to use reduction gear trains to
increase the torque it produces and to slow it down to
manageable speeds.
For this reason, hydraulic actuators can be directly attached
to the links, which simplifies the design, reduces the weight
and cost and rotating inertia of joints, reduces backlash,
increases the reliability of the system, due to simpler design
and fewer parts, and also reduces noise.
On the other hand, electric motors rotate at high speeds (up
to many thousands of revolutions per minute) and must be
used in conjunction with reduction gears to increase their
torque and to decrease their speed, as no one would want a
robot arm to be rotating at such speeds.
This, of course, increases the cost, number of parts,
backlash, inertia of the rotating body, etc., as was
mentioned earlier, but also increases the resolution of the
system, as it is possible to rotate the link a very small angle.

So, the motor will only "feel" a fraction of the actual

inertia of the load (which in the case of a robot,
constitutes both the manipulator and the load it carries
with it)

Hydraulic Actuators
Hydraulic systems and actuators offer a high power-to-weight
ratio, large forces at low speeds (both linear and rotary
actuation) compatibility with microprocessor and electronic
controls, and tolerance of extreme hazardous environments.
However, due to leakage problems, which is almost inevitable in
hydraulic systems, and due to their power unit weight and cost,
they are not used any more.
Nowadays, most robots are electric. However, there are still
many robots in industry that have hydraulic actuators.
Additionally, for special applications such as very large robots
and civil service robots, hydraulic actuators may be the
appropriate choice.
The total force that a linear cylinder can deliver can be
tremendously large for its size.
A hydraulic cylinder can deliver a force of F = p x A lb, where A
is the effective area of the piston or ram and p is the working
For example, for a pressure of 1.000 psi, every square inch of
the cylinder develops 1.000-lb of force.

In rotary cylinders, the same principle is true, except

that the output is a torque where:

where dx is the desired displacement and dx/dt is the

desired velocity of the piston.
As you can see, by controlling the volume of the fluid
going into the cylinder the total displacement can be
By controlling the rate in which the fluid is sent to the
cylinder, the velocity can be controlled.
This is done through a 'servo-valve that controls the
volume of the fluid, as well its rate.

A hydraulic system generally consists of the

following parts:
1. Hydraulic linear or rotary cylinders and rams. These
provide the force or torque needed to move the joints
and are controlled by the servo valves or manual valves.
2. A hydraulic pump which is a high-pressure pump that
provides high-pressure fluid to the system.
3. Electric (or others such as diesel engine) motor, which
operates the hydraulic pump.
4. Cooling system, which rids the system of the heat
generated. In some systems, in addition to cooling fans,
radiators and cooled air are used.
5. Reservoir, which keeps the fluid supply available to the
system. Since the pump is constantly supplying pressure
to the system, whether or not the system is using it, all
the extra pressurized fluid, as well as all the returned
fluid from the cylinders, flow back into the reservoir.

A hydraulic system generally consists of the

following parts:
6. Servo-valve is a very sensitive valve that controls the
amount and the rate of fluid to the cylinders. The servovalve is generally driven by a hydraulic servomotor.
7. Safety check valves, holding valves, and other safety
valves throughout the system.
8. Connecting hoses, which are used to transport the
pressurized fluid to the cylinders and back to the
9. Sensors, which are used to control the motion of the
cylinders. They include position, velocity, magnetic,
touch, and other sensors.








Hydraulic Actuators
Rack-and-pinion limited rotation


Hydraulic Actuators
Vane limited-rotation actuator

Goodheart-Willcox Co.,

Permission granted to reproduce

for educational use only.



The limited angle rotary actuator is applied when the shaft has to
rotate over a limited angle.
The animation shows how this simple actuator works: in this case
the shaft can rotate over an angle of about 270 degrees.
This type of actuator is, among others, used as a rotator actuator
on (small) cranes and excavators.

Figure is a schematic drawing of a typical

hydraulic system.

Figure is a schematic drawing of a position control pilot

valve for a hydraulic cylinder, also called a spool valve.
This is a balanced valve, which means that the
pressures on the two sides of the spool are equal. Thus,
it takes very little force to move the spool even though
it may be under very high pressures.
When a servomotor is attached to the spool valve to
operate it, a servo-valve is created. The servo valve and
the cylinder together form a hydraulic servomotor.
As the spool moves up
or down, it opens the
supply and return
ports through which
the fluid travels to the
cylinder or is returned
to the reservoir.

Depending on the size of the opening of the port, the

supply fluid flow rate is controlled, and so is the velocity
of the cylinder.
Depending on the length of time that the port is kept
open, the total amount of the fluid to the cylinder, and
thus its total travel, is controlled.
The command to the servomotor controlling the spool
valve comes from the controller.
The controller sets the current to the servomotor, as
well as the duration the current is applied, which, in
turn, controls the position of the spool.
Thus, for a robot, when the controller has calculated
how much and how fast a joint must move, it sets the
current and its duration to the servomotor, which, in
turn, controls the position and rate of movement of the
spool valve, which, in turn, controls the flow of the fluid
and its rate to the cylinder, which moves the joint.

The sensors provide feedback to the controller for

accurate and continued control.
Figure shows the flow of the fluid as the spool valve
moves up or down.
As you can see, a simple motion of the spool controls
the motion of the cylinder.

To provide feedback to the servo-valve, either electronic

or mechanical feedback can be added to the valve.
(Otherwise, it will not be a servo-valve, but a manual
spool valve).
Figure shows a simple mechanical feedback loop.
A similar design is used in a two-stage spool valve to
provide feedback to the valve.

Figure shows the schematic of the, block

diagram for the feedback loop.

When a wire carrying a current is placed within a magnetic field, it
experiences a force normal to the plane formed by the magnetic
If the wire is attached to a center of rotation, the resulting torque
will cause it to rotate about the center of rotation.
Changing the direction of the magnetic field or the current causes
the wire to continuously rotate about the center of rotation, as
shown in Figure .
In practice, to accomplish this change in the current, either a set of
commutators and brushes are used for DC motors, the current is
electronically switched for DC brushless motors, or AC current is
This is the basic principle behind
used for AC motors.
all electric motors.
Similarly, if a conductor is moved
within a magnetic field crossing
the flux, a current develops
through the conductor. This is
called a generator.
Figure: When a wire carrying a
current is placed within a
magnetic field it will experience a
force in a direction normal to a

There are many types of electric motors that

are used in robotics. They include the following:

DC motors
reversible AC motors
brushless DC motors
stepper motors

Except for stepper motors, all other types of

motors can be used as a servomotor.
In each case, the torque or power output of the
motor is a function of the strength of the
magnetic fields and the current in the windings.
Some motors have permanent magnets (PMs).
These motors generate less heat, since the field
is always present and no current is needed to
build them.

Others have a soft iron core and windings, where

an electric current creates the magnetic field.
In this case, more heat is generated, but when
needed, the magnetic field can be varied by
changing the current, whereas in permanent
magnet motors, the field is constant.
Additionally, under certain conditions, it is
possible that the permanent magnet may get
damaged and lose its field strength, in which
case the motor becomes useless.
For example, you should never take a motor
apart, as the permanent magnet will become
significantly weaker.
This is because the iron mass around the magnet
holds the field intact until they are separated.

To increase the strength of the permanent

magnets in motors, most manufacturers
magnetize the magnets after assembling the
motor. Motors without permanent magnets do
not have this problem.
One important issue in the design and operation
of all motors is the dissipation of heat.
As with the heat generated in many other
devices, the generated heat in motors
eventually becomes the deciding factor about
its size and power.
The heat is generated primarily from the
resistance of the wiring to electric current (load
related), but includes heat due to iron losses,
including eddy current losses and hysteresis
losses, friction losses, brush losses, and shortout circuit losses (speed related) as well.

The higher the current, the more heat is generated, as

W = RI2.
Thicker wires generate less heat, but are more
expensive, are heavier (more inertia), and require more
All motors generate some heat. However, what is
important is the path that the heat must take to leave
the motor since if the heat is dissipated faster, more
generated heat can be dissipated before damage
Figure shows the heat leakage path to the environment
for an AC-type motor and a DC-type motor.

In DC-type motors, the rotor contains the winding

and carries the current, and thus, heat is generated
in the rotor.
This heat must go from the rotor, through the air gap,
through the permanent magnets, through the motor's
body, and be dissipated into the environment.
As you know, air is a very good isolator. Thus, the
total heat transfer coefficient for the DC motor is
relatively low.
On the other hand, in an AC-type motor, the rotor is a
permanent magnet, and the winding is in the stator.
The generated heat in the stator is dissipated to the
air by conduction through the motor's body.
As a result, the total heat transfer coefficient is
relatively high, especially because no air gap exists.

As a result, AC-type motors can be exposed to

relatively higher currents without damage, and thus
they are generally more powerful for the same size.
Stepper motors, although not AC motors, have a
similar construction; the rotor is a permanent
magnet, and the stator contains the windings. Thus,
stepper motors have good heat dissipation
Of course, another major factor in the difference
between brushed and brush-less motors is the life of
the brushes and commutators, as well as the
physical limitation of mechanical switching by
Brushless DC motors, AC motors, and stepper
motors are all brushless, and thus they and are
sturdy and generally have long life (only limited by
the life of rotor bearings).

DC Motors
DC motors are very common in industry and have been
used for a long time. As a result, they are reliable,
sturdy, and relatively powerful.
In DC motors, the stator is a set of fixed permanent
magnets, creating a fixed magnetic field, while the rotor
carries a current.
Through brushes and commutators, the direction of
current is changed continuously, causing the rotor to
rotate continuously.
Conversely, if the rotor is rotated within the magnetic
field, a DC current will develop, and the motor will act
as a generator.
If permanent magnets are used to generate the
magnetic field, the output torque TM is proportional to
the magnetic flux and the current in the rotor
windings Irotor , Then,

where kt is a constant. Since in permanent magnets, the flux is

constant, the output torque becomes a function of / rolor, and to
control the output toque, / (or corresponding voltage) must be
changed. If instead of permanent magnets, soft iron cores with
windings are used for the stator as well, then the output
torque is a function of currents in both the rotor and the stator
Here both k, and kfarz constants.
Through the use of powerful magnets made of rare earth
materials and.alloys, the performance of motors has been
improved significantly. As a result, the power-to-weight ratio of
motors is much better than before, and they have replaced
almost all other types of actuators.
To overcome the problem of high inertia and large size of many
electric motors, a disk or shell motor can be used. In disk and
shell motors, the iron core of the rotor winding is removed to
reduce its weight and inertia, and as a result, these motors are
capable of producing very large accelerations (zero to 2,000
rpm in one ms [3]); they respond very favorably to changing
currents for control purposes. A shell motor's rotor looks
similar to a regular DC rotor without the massive iron core.
However, in a disk motor, the rotor is a flat, thin, plate, with
windings pressed (etched) into it, as if one would flatten a
rotor into a disk. The wires are generally cut out of a copper
plate and embedded into a disk. The permanent magnets are

generally small, short cylindrical magnets

that are placed on the two sides of the
disk. As a result, disk motors are very thin
and are used in many applications where
both space and acceleration
requirements are important. Figure 6.15
is a schematic of a disk motor.

Figure 6.15 Schematic of a disk

motor. The rotor has no iron core
and thus has very little inertia.
As a result, it can accelerate and
decelerate very quickly.