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A team of engineering students from Duke University, North Carolina, has spent the last 15 months building and testing the world's fastest electric monowheel.
As team lead and engineer Anuj Thakkar tells Interesting Engineering, between COVID-19 restrictions and several crashes on the test course, the last few months haven't always been a smooth ride — though the team is happy to be back in the, somewhat precariously balanced, driving seat.
Their ultimate goal: to earn the Guinness World Record for the fastest monowheel ever built by traveling at speeds in excess of 70 mph.
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What is a monowheel?
Ok, so it's pretty self-explanatory — it's in the name and it's in the pictures — but monowheels have an interesting history you may not know about that dates back to the late 19th century.
We've written about the machines — which consist of a single wheel that revolves around the driver — before, highlighting them as a transportation idea that had promise but didn't quite make it mainstream.
Unfortunately, a few serious flaws stopped the monowheel from ever catching on, such as their propensity for the rather comically named "gerbilling," whereby a driver hitting the brakes too fast would spin inside the machine like a pet gerbil inside its wheel.
"Let's build the fastest monowheel in the world"
Thankfully, the new electric monowheel developed by a group of engineering students at Duke University, dubbed EV360, doesn't cause its driver to spin out of control in such a fashion, team lead Anuj Thakkar tells us — that's not to say it's been an easy ride.
"Back in July, 2018, a friend, Logan Fettes, and I saw a picture of a monowheel and decided pretty quickly: let’s build one, and let’s build the fastest one in the world," Thakkar told Interesting Engineering.
The project started in earnest in February 2019, when Duke University Engineering students Carlo Lindner, Ahmed Ahmed-Fouad, and Jolán von Plutzner joined Thakkar after his original partner had to step back for personal health reasons.
Now, after 15 months of designing, building and testing, the team has a machine that uses an 11 kW continuous and 23 kW peak electric motor to reach speeds in excess of 70mph (112 km/h).
Once COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are lifted, they will be on course for a Guinness World Record attempt for the world's fastest electric monowheel — set at 45 mph (72 km/h). The team also has its sights set on beating the overall record held by Mark Foster and the UK Monowheel Team's ICE monowheel.
"The first thirty seconds of each run are the scariest"
With test runs in various locations throughout North Carolina, the Duke Monowheel Team has learned a thing or two about how to handle their vehicle.
The main issue, the Duke Monowheel Team explains in a press release, is that the monowheel's single-wheeled construction leads it to be inherently unstable and almost impossible to steer.
This means that Anuj Thakkar, who is test rider as well as team lead, has crashed over 15 times during training. Thakkar, thankfully, has walked away from those crashes without injury, but it's taken a bit of getting used to.
“The first thirty seconds of each run are the scariest. It’s when you’re trying to keep the vehicle upright while still accelerating. But once you stabilize at around 15 miles per hour, it’s smooth-sailing,” Thakkar says. “At that point, you kind of just have to hold tight, trust the vehicle, and enjoy the ride.”
Working around COVID-19 restrictions
Though the Duke Monowheel Team's vehicle is undoubtedly an impressive achievement, had it not been for the COVID-19 restrictions, there might not have been quite as many crashes and bruises along the way, Thakkar tells us.
"There are two primary ways that the Duke University monowheel could be stabilized," Thakkar told Interesting Engineering. Firstly, an earlier model of the team's monowheel had training wheels, which worked well.
Secondly, "a gyroscope mechanism similar to the self-stabilizing device in Lit Motors’ concept vehicles, could be designed and built to keep the monowheel upright at all times."
"Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, our lab where all our machines and tooling are housed was shut down rendering us unable to build reliable solutions," Thakkar explained.
Ultimately, the team decided that the safety gear Thakkar wears on his runs gives enough protection. The team lead also tells us that most of the time he could predict a crash coming 35-40 seconds before it happens, as the vehicle starts to wobble. In these cases, he could try to stabilize or get into a safe position.
There's no monowheel handbook
Aside from team lead and engineer Anuj Thakkar, the Duke Monowheel project's current core team consists of engineer's Carlo Lindner and Ahmed Ahmed-Fouad, and lead cinematographer Fran Romano.
Most visible parts on the vehicle, while conceptualized by all team members, were designed by Lindner. Ahmed-Fouad is "a master of quick, fantastic solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems," Thakkar tells us.
Finally, Fran Romano also has a background in engineering and has been invaluable in finding the root cause of issues — "[the others] come up with the theoretical problem, and I just find the obvious one," Romano says.
The ride has been an invaluable experience, Linder says: “we started the monowheel project as a way to apply the skills we gained in classes to a novel and challenging problem, and to build our practical experience,” he explains. “There is no handbook for how to build a monowheel; it calls for a lot of creativity, and that’s been a great way for us to learn.”
What next for the Duke Monowheel Team?
Thakkar agrees with Lindner's assessment: "it’s been a fantastic opportunity for our team members to build our engineering experience," he explains.
It turns out that companies are recognizing the skills it took to get such a vehicle up and running: the team members have been hired at Audi, SpaceX, Tesla, Exxon, and Neuralink.
While the team's original world record attempt was scheduled for April, COVID-19 put the brakes on progress for a few months. The team plans to get back to their world record attempt later in 2020 as social distancing restrictions are gradually eased.
Editor's Note 29/06/20: The article was updated to clarify that the Guinness World Record the team is on course to attempt is specifically for the world's fastest electric monowheel — though the team does also aim to beat the overall record.