Thermally-actuated shape memory polymers (SMPs) typically display two phases separated by the glass transition temperature (Tg). At temperatures well below the Tg, the polymer exhibits a relatively high elastic modulus. Well above the Tg the elastic modulus drops by several orders of magnitude. In this high temperature region, SMP materials can achieve strain levels well above 100 %. The complex behavior of SMPs (stiffnesses dropping to the order of 1 GPa and extremely high strain levels) precludes the use of traditional strain gages and low-contact force extensometers. The present study presents a detailed expansion of state-of-the-art thermomechanical testing techniques used to characterize the material behavior of SMPs. An MTS environmental chamber with an observation window allows for non-contact optical measurements during testing. A laser extensometer is used for measurement and active control of axial strain. The upper limit on the strain rate capability of the laser extensometer is established. In addition, the photographic strain measurement method known as digital image correlation (DIC) is incorporated, allowing for full field measurement of axial and transverse strains of SMPs over a range of temperatures and strain rates. The strain measurements of the DIC and laser extensometer are compared to each other as well as to clip-on extensometers and strain gages. The comparisons provide insight into the limitations of the traditional strain measurement systems. A series of tensile tests are performed on a commercial SMP from 25 °C up to temperatures of 130 °C and strain levels above 100 %. The laser extensometer provides a robust method for controlling the strain in the gage section of the samples. In addition, results show that the full field measurements of both the axial and the transverse strain are essential for characterizing the constitutive response of SMPs at room and elevated temperatures.

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