Robot Bike

The UIUC Robotic Bike was build in collaboration with students at the University of Illinois. The bike evolved from an idea to a full-fledged prototype over the course of three consecutive semesters circa 1987 and 1988.


UIUC Robotic Bike. We believe that this bike, designed, built, and successfully tested in the era 1988 by UIUC engineering students, constituted the world’s first successful robotic bike. The Robotic Bike operates under the premise that it is above critical velocity, and thus is effectively “no-hands.” The bicycle is “fooled” into thinking that it is in a lean — and the castor-camber effect will turn the front fork into the direction of “lean,” really the lean or camber of the front steering head. The camber angle of the steering head is dictated by a radio controlled servo-system. Note that the Robotic Bike has no handle bars and not even a seat, as it doesn’t require a rider. Affiliate Bill Becoat admires the design and details.


More Details of the design. An automotive window cranking motor, reversible in direction, is driven by a radio circuit, commanded by an external radio signal. The motor drives a chain and sprocket and thereby controls the tilt or “camber” of the front steering head tube. By controlling the camber, the front fork will turn into the direction of camber. This design causes the Robotic Bike to act in an intuitive fashion.


Robotic Bike Drive Mechanism. The Robotic Bike used a friction drive where the driving power came from a 12 volt starter motor used for starting model airplane engines, driven by an appropriate 12 volt battery. Note the chains taped to the rim (wheel) of the rear tire. We found this to be necessary so that the rear portion of the bike would be quasi-stable in inertial space. The rear half of the bike remained where it was, and the front fork cambered or tilted. Without the chain on the rear wheel, the bike would tend to “squat” as the front would tilt one way, and the rear would tilt the other way. This Robotic Bike had to be above critical velocity, which was “fast.” The students were not able to run alongside this bike when it was operating at full speed. We estimated the speed at about 18 MPH. In the sixteen years since its inception, this bike has fallen into disrepair, but we have video tapes of it in action, as well as having been featured on media television programs.

We need to note or comment that hands-on science is fun. Theories are called theories, because they are just theories. When we built experimental bikes, we let the reality of the experiments drive the outcome. This is what the Wright Brothers did, and it is what we did at the University of Illinois. Little details such as the need for chain on the rear tire to increase its gyroscopic stabilization wasn’t obvious in forward vision, but vividly clear in hind-sight.

A colleague at the University of Illinois, Dr. Doug Marriott, had a saying, “Build it wrong, but build it.” Far too many students in today’s world of academia and memorization are afflicted by what we can call, “Paralysis by analysis.”

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