GeoOrbital: Inventing the wheel of fortune
A science-fiction movie inspired the creation of an orbital bicycle wheel with a speed of 30km
Sometimes reinventing the wheel is a good idea, particularly if you take your inspiration from a science-fiction movie.
This is pretty much what happened to Michael Burtov, who unexpectedly ended up in the business of making a bicycle wheel.
Of course, it’s not just any wheel. He makes wheels that turn any ordinary bike into an ebike capable of cruising along at 30km per hour.
Burtov is founder and chief executive of GeoOrbital Inc. “It was two years ago and I was watching the movie Tron: Legacy. The cycles in the film had orbital wheels,” he says from his headquarters in Cambridge, Boston.
The “Tron light racers” had wheels that didn’t turn but provided power to drive the tyres around.
He got to thinking that an ordinary bicycle wheel represented “a crazy waste of space” and started looking for a novel alternative. He had no engineering background but decided to build a scaled-down version.
“I put it together from auto parts and toy parts to make a miniature version that demonstrated it,” he says.
“I filed the first patent application and started to look for people who could make it into a product.”
He met mechanical engineer Dakota Decker at about that time. “[Decker] was working at Space X and he joined immediately. The original idea was mine but as a product it is Dakota’s work and all the engineering he put into it.”
They began making improvements and prototype after prototype emerged.
Finance was sought from online crowdfunding service Kickstarter to help fund the business, with investors getting a chance to buy a wheel at a heavily discounted price.
So far they have not had to look for external investment to build the company, in no small measure because Burtov has remained tightly focused on the mission – to make a new kind of wheel that allows the cyclist to add an electric drive to any type of bicycle in 60 seconds.
“It is not expensive to make these and we are not looking for investor money. We want people to use them. We ride them daily,” he says.
The company now has four employees, including Burtov and Decker, and all the money and effort goes into refining their latest wheel design.
“It is very similar to an ebike conversion kit. It has a motor, battery and motor controller. Everything is held together with sheet-metal parts,” he says.
“It is a very simple configuration. It doesn’t have a lot of smart electronics – the innovation is in the assembly.”
GeoOrbital’s current business model involves encouraging purchases through Kickstarter and then accumulating a batch of orders and getting the sheet-metal components for these made by a nearby company.
“Our plan is to stick with Kickstarter. Anybody can sign up, get a wheel and we will ship it globally. That is just the way that we want to do it.”
There is no need to provide customer service. “The installation is so simple they don’t need support,” he says.
The wheel is disarmingly simple, as so many really good ideas prove to be. All you do is take off the front wheel, slot in the GeoOrbital wheel and tighten it up. That is it.
The fixed wheel has three arms instead of spokes and these conceal the motor, battery and electrics. A simple controller fastens onto the handlebars and you just turn a key and off you go.
Burtov describes the friction-based drive mechanism. It uses a high-density solid foam tyre instead of an inflated tyre so flats are not possible. The tyre is attached to a metal rim and the motor drive presses against this to make the tyre go around while everything else stays in place.
“The inner rim is coated with a gritty substance and the motor tread is rubber. So it is similar to a bike wheel or car tyre on the road,” he argues.
He has no data to indicate whether the turning wheel or a powered bike hub is more efficient, but this may be moot given convenience is the key attribute.
“The big advantage is we can put a very good package in the wheel and make the wheel universal for integrating components,” he says.
For example, if a better battery arises he can just ship out a replacement to anyone who wants to buy one.
The wheel can deliver a top speed of 30k/ph and cover 25 to 30km on one charge. You can plug it into a power outlet or charge it off a USB port.
“We leave the exercise aspect up to the person,” says Burtov.
“It is powerful enough to get you to where you are going with or without peddling. Peddling increases the speed and also gives you all wheel drive which gives you more stability,” he adds.
“When I feel lazy and don’t want to get sweaty I don’t pedal.”
Burtov has set the price of a complete wheel at $950 (€835) including shipping, but has discounted this to encourage “investors” through Kickstarter.
Prices started at €435 with delivery in November this year but the early bird specials ran out. The price has slowly risen as confidence has grown that the wheel will sell and grow a market.
Three price rises later the company is now asking €615 for the wheel shipped anywhere in the world, with a promised delivery in November.
The company decided to avoid moving into built ebikes, although they looked at novel ideas, for example a “folding car” and new kinds of urban transportation. It built a scaled-down penny farthing that uses its motor system.
But for the time being the company will stick with what it knows. “We just make wheels. We have exciting things planned with other alternative vehicle manufacturers,” Burtov says without revealing more.
One place where ebike hardware is not welcomed is in professional cycling. That is not to say that so-called “moto-doping” cheats are not trying it on.
A Belgian cyclist quit the sport last January after an MRI scan of his bike revealed a motor and battery hidden in an otherwise normal-looking frame.
French sports journalists at Stade2 have come up with a way to reveal moto-dopers, a simple thermal camera.
The battery and motor both heat up when placed under a load and the thermal camera revealed a number of “mysterious” readings when tried at cycling events taking place in Italy.
Antidoping authorities are looking into this.