Rapid deployment of marine structures is of growing importance to U.S. naval forces. Surface-based inflatable structures including Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs), inflatable causeways and bridging, and launch and recovery systems provide unique solutions for temporary structures during sea-based missions. When performance specifications demand minimal weight and stowage, rapid deployability and temporary rigidity, solutions are limited to inflatable structures constructed of flexible materials. Driven by air pressure, today’s inflatables provide significant load-carrying capacities per unit weight (or stowed volume) utilizing technical textiles, elastomers or “soft” composites. Overloading of inflatable structures produces unique fail-safe behaviors (reversible wrinkling) that allow the structures to assume rigidity and load-carrying capacity upon load removal.

Design standards are virtually nonexistent for inflatable structures involving shapes constructed of spheres, beams, arches and most recently flat panels using 3D woven drop-stitch panels. Predictive performance tools (analytical and numerical) for static applications lag significantly behind those for conventional structures. Nonlinear system behaviors (material and geometric), thermo-mechanical coupling and fluid-structure interactions (FSI’s) pose significant challenges when applying existing design tools to inflatable structures. This gap is further exacerbated for dynamic applications as inflatable structures exhibit pressure-dependent natural frequencies and mode shapes. Surface-based structures must be designed with consideration given to operational sea state frequencies and wave periods so that the onset of structural instabilities (wrinkling, buckling) and loss of load-carrying capacities can be prevented.

The present research establishes the validity of physics based models using the Ideal Gas Law as an equation of state (EOS) to predict the natural frequencies and corresponding mode shapes of air-inflated drop-stitch fabric panels as functions of inflation pressure. Particular concern is given to the breathing modes for inflation pressures ranging from 5.0 to 30.0 psig. The presence of breathing modes can negatively impact the riding performance of RIBs vessels constructed with drop-stitch fabric hulls by amplification of the panel’s skin separation displacements and vertical accelerations, and are not seen in this material system for the pressures considered. Both numerical and experimental methods are pursued; the results of laboratory modal experiments are used to validate the numerical models. Predicted and experimental natural frequencies and mode shapes are compared and excellent correlation was observed. Increasing inflation pressures produced increasing in-plane and through-thickness normal stresses and modal frequencies of the drop-stitch fabric panels.

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