This paper proposes an adaptive sliding mode control methodology to enhance the positioning ability of conducting polymer actuators typified by tri-layer conjugated polymer actuators. This is motivated by the search for an effective control strategy to command such actuators to a desired configuration in the presence of parametric uncertainties and unmodeled disturbances. After analyzing the stability of the adaptive sliding mode control system, experiments were conducted to demonstrate its satisfactory tracking ability, based on a series of experimental results. Implementation of the control law requires a valid model of the conducting polymer actuator and boundaries of the uncertainties and disturbances. Based on the theoretical and experimental results presented, the adaptive sliding mode control methodology is very attractive in the field of smart actuators which contain significant uncertainties and disturbances. © 2013 IOP Publishing Ltd.