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About Postcards from the Hedge

Always on the cutting edge of the motorcycle industry, Bill Heald’s Postcards from the Hedge provides readers with an exceptional look into all things motorcycle. From racing to design to day-to-day riding, Heald has a grasp on it all.

Name: Bill Heald

Current Rides: Honda VFR and V45 Magna, Kawasaki Ninja 500, Triumph Street Triple R

Favorite quote:

The Wand chooses the Wizard Mr. Potter. It is not always clear why.

- Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Getting Around To It

“We shouldn’t have landed on this damn ball, I know that.”

Brett, in Ridley Scott’s Alien

I had to have it. I’m not sure why; I tend to wander away from most robotics these days (OK, I do have a drone, but still) and yet the weird little mechanical creature that was zooming around the floor of the Apple Store fascinated me. It was a small replica of the droid called BB-8 seen in the Star Wars film The Force Awakens, and this unit travels by basically rolling around like a big ball with a head on top that glides along upright on little wheels while all is spinning below. I was mesmerized by the way this odd sphere of a robot whizzed around in such a stable manner, and while we were in the store to get the spouse’s phone seen to, I knew I was in trouble. I later returned, and one of the Applers used the hypnotic Jedi mind-trick words of “It’s on sale” and I returned home with a new device to vex the cats.HedgeBall1118

Since I got this odd duck, I have been marveling at how good a ball works in terms of locomotion. It’s entertaining, sure, but as time has rolled along I’ve been really admiring how far the technology that makes this thing ambulate has come. I don’t know what’s inside the ball exactly, but it’s pretty sophisticated for such an affordable amusement. We’ve never had controllable rolling balls like this, as the mechanisms necessary hadn’t been developed yet. So now we have the computing power and the engineering to make this little roller zoom around the house, and (naturally) I started wondering about how this type of “wheel” might be adapted to other types of transport. By other types of transport, I am assuming this ball would replace the traditional wheel or track, and ultimately find its way onto, oh I don’t know, a motorcycle perhaps? The more I thought about it, the more I was able to envision two balls about the size of beach balls for locomotion, a frame in-between, a seat, and Bob’s your dad’s brother. The need for a computer-controlled balance system is obvious, but what’s really interesting to me is how you would tie the balls to the chassis for there are actually some choices. The balls could use an axle system (with something resembling

front forks), or (my preferred choice) a floating attachment system like the head on BB-8 that is magnetic in nature. This would be a great deal more complex but quite possibly more dynamic, and therefore could maybe be capable of some very seriously stable performance antics because balls can’t fall over. It’s hard to write about, but much easier to visualize when the mind is at peace (or you’re hammered on something).

Applications. So how do we use such a ball-o-cycle? As is so often the case, I think one of the first ways this machine could be launched into the riding world is where the road ends. With suitable traction-grabbing surfacing on the drive units, you could have a true All Wheel (or All Ball, actually) drive system to plow though the muck. The large surface area would help the ride float over really loose substrate, too, and I think it could even deal with water if needed. You also would’t have to worry much about getting a flat, as the balls would, by their nature, be solid in construction and if something should penetrate whatever type of traction material is on the outside it wouldn’t destroy the “spherical integrity.” Obviously the downside is very little shock absorption, but that could be handled by the suspension system (which in the case of a “floating” magnetic hub design may be largely done through the gap between the hub and the ball, though variable magnetic flux). Got that? Of course. This will all make perfect sense after Mr. Hee brings the pipe and you inhale very deeply.

So for a street version, there are all kinds of tweakings that could be done to suit the surface and type of riding. I see a world of potential here. However I would be remiss in mentioning a general misgiving I have about something so tech-heavy: It’s so amazingly tech-heavy. This bothers me because I am forever reminded of where computers have been taking us by making what was once impossible, possible. Not that long ago, a very stealthy US fighter plane was launched that, due to its bizarre design to make it difficult to pick up on radar, it was entirely dependent on computer systems to keep it flyable. It was so incredibly unstable without the kind of constant corrections necessary due to its faulty aerodynamics, only computers could keep things under control so the pilot wouldn’t pass out from trying to wrestle the beast during even straight-and-level flight. Computers would be 100% necessary to keep my new moto-invention stable and controllable, and such things concern me. I still like to be able to operate my devices mechanically as it’s usually simpler, and in general much more reliable. The only electronics on my current “A” motorcycle is engine management, and everything else is 100% mechanical and super reliable (and easy to fix and adjust, without plugging in another computer to talk to it). A dive computer can do so much more than a mechanical watch and depth gauge, but they are much more complex and have had their problems. So as you can see, I have a conflict. But man, I do like the way that BB-8 rolls around on its tour of the house.