Will Smith’s character drives a sleek car with spherical wheels in the sci-fi movie “I, Robot.” While this futuristic film is a fantasy, a team of Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering students is making a very similar vehicle a reality.
From conception to fruition, this group has spent more than a year on this ambitious senior project called Spherical Drive System: a self-balancing, electric motorcycle that uses spheres as wheels.
The team includes team manager Max Ratner, financial officer/mechanical designer Henry Li, and lead mechanical designer Andrew Parmar.
While brainstorming project ideas, the team came across a YouTube video of a robot that balances on a ball. Parmar said they combined other inspirations, such as the Segway Personal Transporter and the “I, Robot” car, for their final concept.
Riding a motorcycle involves balance and some level of instability. They said a sphere has benefits over a typical wheel.
“It has an inherent safety factor,” Li said. “It’s able to help you balance on the bike.”
Ball transfer units, which are small ball bearings, keep the spheres moving. Spheres allow omnidirectional movement, meaning that this motorcycle could move in any direction, including backwards and sideways.
Li said they decided to build a motorcycle because “it captures people’s imagination.” The team can imagine similar, spherical technology used in other areas, including wheelchairs, forklifts and amusement park rides.
Professor Winncy Du, who is Spherical Drive System’s faculty adviser, said she has never seen a senior project like this one.
“It’s very different,” Du said. “They’re going to change the world of the bicycle.”
The team has assertively gained sponsorships, including monetary donations and parts for their vehicle. They have even attended job fairs, not for finding a job but to gain support for their project. Li said at the moment, they could use help in manufacturing molds for the spheres, which are a composite of carbon fibers, fiberglass and synthetic rubber.
Ratner said their senior project has been a lesson in communication and team building, in addition to gaining technical experience. He encourages students to take initiative with their project ideas.
Parmar added, “We hope students do more unique projects.”
Last March, Ratner and Parmar represented Spherical Drive System in the American Society of Mechanical Engineering’s regional district student competition. Parmar earned first place in the oral competition, and Ratner earned second place in the poster presentation. Parmar will advance to the national competition in Houston this November.
The team devotes hours to this project. Ratner, Li and Parmar estimate they each put in 20 to 30 hours per week on top of school, work and other commitments. Their project deadline is May 16, but they plan to continue working on the motorcycle this summer to get it ready for test riding.