Revolutionizing robotics

September 30, 2011

By Abby Rhodes

Curtis Boirum ’09, M.S. ’11 can trace his passion for mechanical engineering back to a box of Legos and a few ill-fated construction projects.

“Growing up, I always had all these ideas, but without real knowledge of mechanics and electronics, actually making them happen was next to impossible,” Boirum said.

In Bradley’s College of Engineering and Technology, Boirum found the instruction, support and resources he needed to turn his grand plans into tangible, possibly revolutionary, results. He has a patent in the works, he’s completing a master’s degree with a 4.0 this summer, and he’s still “playing” with Legos.

Last year Boirum attached a hemispherical omnidirectional gimbaled wheel, or HOG wheel, onto a small Lego frame with two wheels to prove possible his on-paper concept of a shockingly quick and maneuverable robot. The rubber HOG wheel spins rapidly, like a top, and when tilted slightly by a remote control, will instantly change the robot’s direction without slowing it down. The simple design requires no transmission and costs next to nothing to build.

The value is in the innovation. Not since the 1930s has anyone documented research on this type of technology, and Boirum believes his invention could lead to highly maneuverable wheelchairs, forklifts or other moving machines utilized in factories or on aircraft carriers.

“The ultimate idea is that with enough computer control, this would so be maneuverable, so quick, that it could do things a person using a remote control couldn’t even make it do,” Boirum said. The latest version of his robot includes two gimbaled wheels, a microprocessor, a wireless serial port and a helicopter gyro on the bottom for stability control at high speeds.

Robot enthusiasts have their own ideas for applying Boirum’s research. Since he showed off his first HOG wheel robot at the RoboGames symposium in April, a growing number of robotics blogs and magazines have been spreading the news worldwide about Boirum’s unbelievably agile creation. Online articles by well-known industry bloggers have received tens of thousands of hits and inspired dozens of reader comments.

“I couldn’t believe all the different websites and magazines that picked it up, magazines that I’ve always read and thought, ‘Man, it would be really great to one day be featured in there,’” Boirum said. “It’s really exciting because for every student who gets some media recognition, there are 100 of us back here working really hard and going unnoticed.”

Dr. Julie Reyer, associate professor of mechanical engineering and assistant dean for student success, 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 been before. Fostering that drive is why we’re here,” Reyer said.

Boirum has already been hired by a top computer manufacturer and expects to begin a doctoral program in mechanical engineering in the near future. In the meantime, he will continue development on his HOG wheel project and remain involved with the Central Illinois Robotics Club.