Reinventing the wheel


Graduate student Curt Boirum invented a wheel that could lead to highly maneuverable wheelchairs, forklifts, and other moving machines.

A year ago, graduate student Curt Boirum unveiled his invention.

By attaching a hemispherical omnidirectional gimbaled — or HOG wheel — onto a small LEGO frame with two wheels, the 2009 mechanical engineering graduate and 2011 master’s recipient created a shockingly quick and maneuverable robot. The rubber HOG wheel spins rapidly, like a top, and can instantly change direction without slowing down by slightly tilting a remote control. This simple design requires no mechanical transmission and costs very little to build.

Unbeknownst to Boirum, this technology had been invented in the 1930s but had largely disappeared until he recently resurrected the concept. Boirum believes that his invention could lead to highly maneuverable wheelchairs, forklifts, and other moving machines utilized in factories and aircraft carriers.

“The ultimate idea is that with enough computer control, this would be so maneuverable, so quick, that it could do things a person using a remote control couldn’t even make it do,” Boirum says.

When he revealed his HOG wheel at the 2011 RoboGames symposium in April, media and engineering forums exploded, hailing this invention as amazing and spawning thousands of comments about the future of this technology. Since its first appearance on YouTube last July, a video demonstration of the HOG wheel has received almost 150,000 views and generated many news stories.

“I couldn’t believe all of the different websites and magazines that picked it up, magazines that I’ve always read and thought, ‘Man, it would be really great to be featured in there one day,’” Boirum says.

Dr. Julie Reyer, a mechanical engineering professor and assistant dean in the College of Engineering and Technology, collaborated with Boirum on the project and is leading the effort to secure a patent.

“Having students like Curt who are enthusiastic about a project is exciting, especially when you realize an idea has potential to take us interesting places we haven’t seen before. Fostering drive is why we’re here,” she says.

Boirum was hired as a mechanical engineer at Dell Services, where he works with the mechatronics group on computer and hardware interfacing, mechanical and electrical hardware design, software design simulation, and real-time interfacing and simulation. He also expects to begin a doctoral program in mechanical engineering as he continues to develop his HOG wheel.