Linear back-drive differentials have been proposed as alternatives to conventional gear differentials for applications in which there is only limited rotational motion (e.g., oscillation). The finite nature of the rotation makes it possible to optimize a linear back-drive differential in ways that would not be possible for gear differentials or other differentials that are required to be capable of unlimited rotation. As a result, relative to gear differentials, linear back-drive differentials could be more compact and less massive, could contain fewer complex parts, and could be less sensitive to variations in the viscosities of lubricants.
Linear back-drive differentials would operate according to established principles of power ball screws and linear-motion drives, but would utilize these principles in an innovative way. One major characteristic of such mechanisms that would be exploited in linear back-drive differentials is the possibility of designing them to drive or back-drive with similar efficiency and energy input: in other words, such a mechanism can be designed so that a rotating screw can drive a nut linearly or the linear motion of the nut can cause the screw to rotate.
A linear back-drive differential (see figure) would include two collinear shafts connected to two parts that are intended to engage in limited opposing rotations. The linear back-drive differential would also include a nut that would be free to translate along its axis but not to rotate. The inner surface of the nut would be right-hand threaded at one end and left-hand threaded at the opposite end to engage corresponding right- and left-handed threads on the shafts. A rotation and torque introduced into the system via one shaft would drive the nut in linear motion. The nut, in turn, would back-drive the other shaft, creating a reaction torque. Balls would reduce friction, making it possible for the shaft/nut coupling on each side to operate with 90 percent efficiency.
This work was done by Peter Waydo of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.