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Novel actuator muscles in on Dreamieland

01 July, 2002

Novel actuator muscles in on Dreamieland

Children riding on the new Adventures of Dreamieland attraction at Manchester`s Trafford Centre are among the first people in the UK to experience a novel pneumatic actuator which can mimic human muscles. The animated characters that they pass on the ride have been given lifelike movements using the actuator technology known as "fluidic muscle".

The technology, developed by Festo, consists essentially of a tube which contracts under pressure. By surrounding the tube with a non-elastic sheath, the "muscle" can be made to grow wider and shorter as a fluid flows into the tube. The device is said to produce up to ten times more power than a conventional pneumatic cylinder, while consuming only 40% of the energy for the same output.

Although designed principally for industrial applications, the technology can be used to simulate opposing muscles in an arm or leg. By extending or contracting the tubes, lifelike three-dimensional movements are possible.

At Trafford Park, the muscles are used to create animated characters which perform actions such as swinging around each other, dropping objects, and flying through the air as children shoot at them with laser guns. The technology overcomes the limitations of conventional pneumatic actuators whose stiction causes jerky movements, and servo-electric systems which are too expensive.

Matthew Kitchen-Dunn of the animatronics specialist KD Decoratives which designed and built the ride, says that the new technology "represents a key leap forward for our business - it is simply a better solution for the kind of motion we need to reproduce for our animatronic characters."

KD is working with Festo to develop a new range of characters, 80% of whose movements will come from fluidic muscles. The two companies are also working on a proportional control technology that they hope will deliver realistic movements for about one third of the cost of traditional animatronic systems, while being simpler and performing better.

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