Actuators are essential components for countless systems, capable of converting electrical signals into mechanical movement. As such, they serve as a mover that is responsible for the movement and control of a mechanism or system. In regard to aviation actuators that are implemented in aircraft, such components may provide for a range of applications such as limiting velocity, controlling engine speed, adjusting flaps, and much more. In this blog, we will discuss the use of actuators in aviation applications, allowing you to better understand the important roles that they serve.
In order to benefit flight operations, aircraft actuators must be capable of achieving high dynamic forces, all while being lightweight and compact so as to not be a detriment to aerodynamics. Additionally, they also must be able to withstand the various environmental extremes that they will commonly be exposed to, those of which include strong vibrations, intense heat, and freezing temperatures. Actuators can be found within many systems across the aircraft, often finding placement within water, hydraulic, oxygen, fuel, and air systems alike. Additionally, some actuators may be equipped with valve components, allowing them to serve safety roles for emergency flow shut-off.
In the early days of aviation, many actuators were mechanically operated, requiring the use of cables, gears, and rods to optimally function. As hydraulic and pneumatic actuator equipment rose in use, all mechanical parts were replaced with levers, control columns, compressed air, hydraulic cylinders, and more. Nevertheless, even hydraulics and pneumatics have begun to be superseded by the influx of advanced, computerized electronics. While hydraulics and pneumatics still find ample use for flight operations, electromechanical actuators continue to rise in popularity.
There are various benefits to electromechanical aviation actuators, one being that they are energy-efficient and sustainable. With the simplistic design of electromechanical actuators and the implementation of computerized control systems, manufacturers have been able to improve the fuel efficiency and sustainability of aircraft, all while improving control and reliability. As electromechanical actuators do not require compressed air or fluid, they also present the benefit of being fairly low-maintenance.
Depending on where an actuator is used and the role that it serves, such components may either be linear or rotary in operation. Linear actuators move objects in a straight line, and they are known for their accuracy and ability for repeat actions. Generally, a linear actuator will transform rotary motion provided by an electric motor into linear motion through the use of a ball screw or belt. With rotary actuators, on the other hand, rotary motion is provided by a shaft for the means of managing speed, rotation, and positioning of equipment. As compared to linear actuators, rotary actuators are not restricted by the distance that they can travel. Additionally, their arc lengths can reach upwards of 720 degrees or more, allowing them to surpass the typical pivot arcs that are common to cylinders.
Within an aircraft, linear actuators are often found within landing gear systems, ensuring that landing gear doors can open and that the gear itself can extend and retract as needed. Within the engine, linear actuators also control reverse thrust, allowing for aircraft exhaust to be directed forward for stopping power. Rotary actuators, on the other hand, find use in various systems such as nose wheel steering mechanisms and other equipment. For the nose wheel steering mechanism, the rotary actuators adjust the positioning of a piston, engaging a pinion that turns an output shaft. As this occurs, the piston will begin to receive fluid pressure, and its movement will rotate the piston.
While actuators have advanced over the decades to reach new potentials, they are still faced with wear and tear that will eventually cause them to fail. As such, it is important to regularly inspect and maintain all actuators and their related components, ensuring that a detrimental failure does not occur. If you are maintaining your aircraft and find that any actuator is damaged or has reached the end of its service life, it is important that it is replaced as soon as possible.
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