Protean Electric invented a kind of powered, steerable caster for vehicles

The Protean 360-plus module would allow vehicles to rotate around their own axis even when not moving forward, leading to extreme maneuverability.

Protean Electric

Getting people out of their cars and into bigger, more dense means of transit is an integral part of reducing traffic congestion in our cities. The problem is that many of those more dense types of transportation either require special infrastructure or they’re big and not exceptionally maneuverable.

A company called Protean announced Thursday that it’s developing some technology that sounds like it could solve the maneuverability problem. The tech is called a 360-plus corner module and if you boil it down to its most basic elements, it’s essentially a powered, steerable caster. We’ll explain.

The Protean module uses a drive hub built into a wheel that provides motivation. It also uses electric motors to add steering functionality at each individual wheel, and because the wheel attaches to the body only at one point, it can be turned 360 degrees. Oh, and Protean built suspension into the wheel unit as well, which happens to be pneumatically height-adjustable.

This cutaway drawing shows the compact, modular nature of the 360-plus system with its top-mounted steering servos and in-wheel drive motor.


This all makes the 360-degree corner module a compact and modular way to make a vehicle capable of moving in any direction at any time. The closest analog to this tech we can think of is the spherical-tired robot delivery vehicles from I, Robot. Those were able to pivot around their central axis while at speed, which the Protean system could also do, in theory.

“Transport-as-a-service urban mobility is gaining momentum, and with it the need for a new class of urban transport vehicles,” KY Chan, CEO of Protean Electric, said in a statement. “Whether shared or private, for passengers or goods deliveries, human-driven or autonomous, these new vehicles will require new technologies to be fit for purpose. The Protean360+ corner module was born from our team’s innovative thinking about how to meet the requirements for these next-generation urban vehicles.”

In Protean’s press release, it shows the system being used in a small tram or bus type vehicle in an urban area. It’s easy to imagine vehicles like these taking the place of much more expensive streetcar or light rail systems.

It’s not clear how far along the development track Protean is with the 360-plus corner module, or what plans the company has for it — whether to license the technology to other companies, or sell the modules outright or even to built its own vehicles using the modules — but we’re interested to see where this tech goes.

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