I’m not sure just how closely you’re tracking the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) research into making new, more potent and capable ground vehicles, but they’ve been working like very secretive and dangerous little beavers and coming up with some pretty remarkable things. Like a whole new take on the wheel, which, let’s face it, has been resting on its laurels for quite a while.

The DARPA Ground X-Vehicle Technologies (GXV-T) program has some pretty ambitious goals, all based around the fundamental concept that it’s getting harder and harder for armor vehicles to provide protection against modern weaponry, so instead of heading down a dead-end path to larger, heavier, more cumbersome, expensive, and less maneuverable vehicles, a new path should be taken.

The program lists its very ambitious goals as:

  • Reduce vehicle size and weight by 50 percent
  • Reduce onboard crew needed to operate vehicle by 50 percent
  • Increase vehicle speed by 100 percent
  • Access 95 percent of terrain
  • Reduce signatures that enable adversaries to detect and engage vehicles

Those are pretty steep goals. They put out this video to show some of the results:

While that video is full of amazing stuff, I think the most striking is Carnegie Mellon University’s Reconfigurable Wheel-Track, which can dynamically morph from a (relatively) conventional round wheel into a triangular track. Here, look at this:

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Wow, that’s cool. The abstract of the Carnegie Mellon paper about these Wheel-Track system gives a good quick overview of their possibilities:

Wheels and tracks each boast a diverse set of properties that enable them to thrive in very different missions. Where once heavy armor and large weaponry was synonymous with safety for military ground vehicles, current development effort has shifted to the intelligent prediction and evasion of attack. A device capable of transitioning between wheel and track form would provide these vehicles with the efficiency advantages of a wheel and the mobility benefits of a track.

Essentially, you get the speed of a wheeled vehicle with the incredible all-terrain ability of a tracked vehicle, likely at the expense of complexity and weight. Plus, you’ll need some manner of control system and power delivery to whatever is actuating the transition between track and wheel, but I’m confident all of this will be refined and you’ll be able to buy a set of 15 inch wheel-tracks for your Prius by 2021.

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There’s plenty of other fascinating things in that video: windowless, VR-based driving (with less driver nausea), and this thing:

What remarkable times we live in.