Thursday, January 20, 2011
Sometimes a technology pops up out of the blue that unexpectedly solves stumbling blocks that have been around for years. In this case I will refer the reader to the 3-axis accelerometer, a nifty little device that you probably own a few of. Own a car? There’s probably one in the airbag controller. Own a digital camera? Probably one there too, to help you take a clear shot with shaky hands. Got a smart phone? That’s how that nifty feature that keeps the screen upright works. Game controllers. The Segway. The list goes on.
What I am exited about is how the device can operate as a level, a feature that was exploited to create the iPhone app above. You see, because gravity and acceleration are essentially interchangeable, an accelerometer senses gravity as constant acceleration. Zero this force out with software, and your accelerometer senses “acceleration” every time you tip it in any direction… a thousand times a second. Voila! A level! Or actually, to be more precise, an inclinometer!
Meanwhile, in the world of motion control, engineers are redesigning the electric motor. In the old days, it was realized that rather than putting bunches of electromagnets in a large circular array to make a motor, just a few would do, if the rotation were faster. That way, the same magnets could come around and around again, faster. More power, less materials. Magic! Only problem was that many people didn’t want fast rotation, and a century’s worth of bulky and inefficient reduction gearboxes ensued. Recently, a revolution has been taking place in the world of motors, the conversion from mechanically switching the electromagnets off and on (brushed motor) to using an external controller. Now, rather than simply rotating at a given speed, motors can be made to stop, change speed, reverse, hold a position, etc. The modern servomotor has been born.
Now a new generation of brushless, direct-drive motors is emerging which return to large diameter magnet arrays for torque, rather than gearboxes. These offer powerful and accurate rotational control without requiring that a machine be designed around standard gearboxes and motor mounts. I am referring, specifically, to frameless torque motors, which have reduced this architecture down to a simple pair of concentric rings. They are simply inserted between the machine and the shaft to be turned, like a bushing or ball bearing unit.
So here’s how it all comes together. Pictured above is the swing-arm for the PRT vehicle that I have detailed in previous posts. Two pair of frameless torque motors (shown in red) are controlled by an accelerometer. These keep the vehicle in line with the normal gravitational forces. The accelerometer-torque motor combination can, in theory, eliminate any errant, sideways G forces. The idea is to emulate a free hanging system, without really being one. Why not just let it hang? Unbalanced or shifting loads, sudden gusts of side winds, or continual rocking back and fourth are all effects that need to be canceled. Other than that, a free hanging design has the wonderful effect of self-canceling motion-related forces from acceleration, deceleration, or turning. It’s like a bucket on a rope. No matter how you swing it around, water in the bucket won’t spill, because all gravity gets shifted toward the bottom of the bucket. With a vehicle-mounted accelerometer, any forces that it senses other than “downward” (in a relative sense) would cause the motors to lock up to arrest that movement, with the exception of a slight dampening, to control of the tendency to swing repeatedly like a pendulum.
I have mentioned in previous posts how the swing-arm design is extraordinarily safe, because rather than throwing occupants through the windshield in a head-on collision, the cab would swing forward, absorbing shock and transferring the direction of momentum so that it would essentially push the occupant into the seat instead of out of it. In this system, extreme forces will initially simply break the magnetic bond, allowing this forward swing. As the swing continues toward its apogee, however, the relative strength of the torque motors increases geometrically, applying ever greater braking force. Meanwhile the cab has gone from traveling forward to traveling upward, so it is additionally fighting gravity. All of this absorbs the force of impact without any mechanical damage to the vehicle. Combine this with bogey-to-bogey bumpers, and you have an extremely effective crash protection system. There are theoretical and mathematical ways demonstrate that split-second headways are not dangerous for PRT vehicles, but it’s pretty hard to beat coming out of a crash test damage-free to drive the point home.
You could set down a full cup of coffee and be whisked away at high speeds without spilling a drop. There is no reason why PRT can’t put any luxury car to shame in ride quality. An added bonus is unprecedented safety.