College students reinvent the wheel with spherical drive motorcycle

Who said college isn’t worth it anymore?

A group of engineering students have designed what may be the coolest motorcycle ever, if you can even call it a motorcycle.

While at San Jose State University last spring, senior Max Ratner and a team of undergrads invented what they call the Spherical Drive System. Instead of wheels and tires the motorcycle they designed rides on spheres controlled by six motors on top of them. The result is a very radical ride can move in any direction.

The team recently completed the steel frame. This fall, they plan to start building the electrical components and finish the motor design, which is the most unique component. For the drive system to work, complex algorithms control each motor – three on each sphere. With the spheres, the team says they are “reinventing the wheel” because the bike has a new freedom of movement to zig-zag through traffic, park laterally, and even spin in place.

“The spherical design is actively balancing all the time, which is similar to a Segway,” says Henry Li, part of the six-person engineering team. “We chose the form factor of a motorcycle because we know it can handle high-speeds, but the Segway is limited in how fast it can go.”

One reason the design is so novel is because of the programming that went into the spherical drive system. The bike uses electronic gyroscopes and accelerometers to measure whether or not the bike is falling over. The six “omni-motors” are constantly in contact with the sphere, like the roller sensors touching the ball in a mechanical computer mouse, and can spin it in any direction.

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The team says they don’t know of any other drive system like this. An existing product, called the Gyrobike, balances by using a spinning mechanical gyro. GM’s EN-V urban transit concept balances on two wheels like the Segway.

Li says the two-way spherical design could easily support speeds up to 50-60 MPH or more and be adapted to a four “wheel” vehicle, as well. The initial proof of concept prototype will be limited to about 10-15 MPH.

For those who dream of having a computer-controlled car that watches the road, dodges accidents, and swerves around obstructions autonomously, this spherical superbike could pave the way. Since a computer can more accurately control the movements, future vehicles using the system could avoid obstacles (and each other) easier. Ratner says the spherical design can respond much faster that existing two-wheel and four-wheel designs.

Li says the design could be used for forklifts, large transport vehicles, and even toys. The team has aspirations to produce the first prototype and then move on to more ambitious design schemes.

Right now, Ratner is seeking more funding because three of the key engineering members graduated last year. The plan is to retool the motor design and finish the initial prototype by next summer.

Ratner says the Spherical Drive System is at least five years away from being mass produced, but will it really see the light of day? For now, the team has support from the university to continue with their development plans and they could be driving a prototype around campus sometime next year.

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