One of the oldest inventions ever, there is very little need for improvement from the standard wheel. With the ability to make transportation and overall movement a heck of a lot easier than dragging things on a flat surface, it’s no wonder no one tries to mess with a good thing.
Through a project called GXV-T (Ground X-Vehicle Technologies), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (you know them as DARPA) has introduced a number of advances which aim to help military vehicles become more efficient on the battlefield.
One of these improvements involves replacing windows with video cameras that project outside images of the battlefield inside. Another is the use of ORCA (Off-Road Crew Augmentation), an augmented reality program which predicts the safest and fastest route through rough terrain. But quite possibly the coolest and most physically noticeable improvements are their wheel technologies.
Yes, technologies – meaning more than one. The first improvement to the classic wheel is a joint project between DARPA and British defense technology company QinetiQ to develop in-wheel motors.
Instead of having a single engine powering the wheels, each 20-inch military rim and wheel will have a 3-speed range gearbox and thermal management design located within it. As a result, this increases the vehicle’s acceleration and maneuverability, allowing it to drive over just about any terrain you can throw at it.
Another wheel improvement comes in the form of the Multi-mode Extreme Travel Suspension, or METS (seriously, what is it with the military and their needlessly-long names), courtesy of automotive company Pratt & Miller.
Using standard 20-inch military wheels, it incorporates an advanced short-travel suspension of 4-6 inches and a high-travel suspension of up to six feet. This allows it to adjust the height of each wheel as the vehicle travels over uneven surfaces, making traversal a lot more comfortable. It may not seem like much, but considering how much discomfort military vehicle passengers go through, this is a very welcome addition.
Last but definitely not least is the Reconfigurable Wheel-Track (or RWT), made in cooperation with the Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center (CMU NREC). While still in the experimental stage, this adjustable wheel adapts to different types of terrain. Instead of adding in-wheel motors or increasing the suspension, RWTs change as the vehicle is in motion, allowing the vehicle to retain its stability and speed despite running on a more slippery or softer surface.
When on normal surfaces like roads or hard soil, the wheels look and run just like any ordinary circular wheel. But once they hit softer terrain such as a mud track, they transform within two seconds to take on a more tank-like triangular appearance and look more like treads than actual wheels.
While all these technologies are still experiments, seeing them in action makes you wish they’d be incorporated into everyday vehicles (or at least the off-road ones). You can find more on each individual project over on DARPA’s official webpage.