Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

David Zax

A View from David Zax

Robots on Wheels

And what a wheel! The inventive drive system enables a small robot to spin and turn on a dime.

  • July 14, 2011

Ever since those four horsemen, our culture has long been concerned with the locomotion of the apocalypse. IEEE Spectrum has spotted the more likely means of conveyance that will bring us the End of Days, however: a “singularity drive system” system that makes a robot whip around a room like a mouse on speed.

The wheel system is the brainchild of a surely well-meaning student at Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois, named Curtis Boirum. He recently showed it off at RoboGames 2011. Here’s how the system works: the wheel is really half of a rubber ball that spins on its axis extremely quickly. By tilting the hemisphere ever so slightly, you can change the wheel’s direction, causing it to turn on a dime, if you want. You can see some of the acrobatics in the video here–from back when its creator called it a “hemispherical gimbaled wheel drive system” (he since changed the name to something much more suitably apocalyptic sounding).

It’s a neat design–and, in fact, an old one, as both Spectrum and a commenter on its Automaton blog point out. Back in 1938, Mechanics and Handicraft magazine had envisioned a similar device, crowing, “With a 600 h.p. airplane engine, this machine could travel at incredible speeds.” It appears not to have come to fruition though (have you seen any hemispherical gimbaled wheels affixed to any cars lately?), and Boirum has said he came upon the idea independently.

Indeed, it might be one of those ideas worth dusting off–it’s a cheap, simple, and powerful design, capable even of “delivering more torque than any of the poor robots that it’s attached to can reliably handle,” in the word’s of Automaton’s Evan Ackerman. Though it’s worth noting that a drive system like this only works optimally on a perfectly smooth floor. If the robotic uprising ever needs to go off-road, they might do better to stick to horseback after all.

Be the leader your company needs. Implement ethical AI.
Join us at EmTech Digital 2019.

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.