December 5, 2013
There’s a reason why big city mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg have pushed hard for the widespread adoption of bike sharing programs. Getting people to collectively start pedaling, instead of driving, can ease traffic congestion, reduce the strain on the public health system and clear up air quality in one fell swoop.
But try telling that to the sweaty business executive in the three-piece suit who’s straining to pedal uphill to make it to an important board meeting on time.
Now, the Boston-based startup Superpedestrian has an innovative alternative for those who still want to enjoy all the benefits of bicycling, but with a lot less grunting. Their pedal assist device, called the Copenhagen Wheel, can be easily slipped onto almost any bicycle as a lightweight modified rear wheel that provides a motorized boost for moments when riders need it most, like, for instance, going uphill. Sandwiched between what looks like two metallic red hubcaps is an intricate system comprised of a 350 watt electric motor and a 48 volt lithium-ion battery that combine to generate an energy output that amounts to more than four times what an average person can muster by just pedaling.
Though the company is keeping mum on how the patent-pending technology works, we do know that the system utilizes what’s called regenerative braking to continuously recharge the onboard battery. Such systems, typically integrated into electric cars and hybrids, convert the kinetic energy involved in stopping a moving vehicle’s forward momentum, as brakes are applied, into stored power. The resulting output gives the modified bicycle a range of 30 miles and a potential top speed of 20 mph.
In some ways, the Copenhagen Wheel does for electric bicycles what Apple did for mobile computing with the smartphone and tablets, in shrinking down all the necessary components into a compact 12-pound module. The minimalist design eliminates the need for certain parts, such as an external throttle, and even includes enhancements like a sensor system designed to automatically track the rider’s pedaling patterns, the shape of the terrain and other environmental conditions to determine when extra power is needed. The device also features built-in Wi-Fi so riders can access the data via a smartphone app, which displays fitness-related metrics such as distances traveled and calories burned.
The idea for the wheel was conceived back in 2009 when Assaf Biderman, an inventor and associate director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, was tasked by the mayor of Copenhagen to figure out a way to motivate more locals to adopt bicycles as a viable mode of transportation. During his research, he found that many deemed bikes as impractical due to a variety of reasons, ranging from the strenuousness of traveling long distances to not wanting to show up at work covered in sweat.
Pedal-assisted electric bikes, or e-bikes, have gained popularity over the last decade, rising steadily to account for 12 percent of all bicycle sales worldwide. Millions have been sold in Asian countries, such as China, where bicycles often serve as a main mode of transport. But the technology’s reach stalls out when it comes to ardent bike enthusiasts, many of whom consider the vehicles to be too clunky. For them, pedal-assisted riding barely resembles the true bicycling experience, and all its joys.
“So we said, let’s think of something that is really elegant that keeps the natural pure experience of riding. Just pedal,” Biderman told Public Radio International.
The Copenhagen Wheel is on sale now for $700, with the earliest shipments scheduled for the the beginning of 2014. And it’s only then that we’ll learn whether the technology lives up to its claims in the rockier parts of the real-world.
November 26, 2013
No one will ever confuse Detroit with Eden. Many, in truth, would consider it just the opposite—a place rotting from the the inside, broke and blighted and iconically grim.
So it’s not just ironic, it actually borders on inconceivable that the city is now being cited as a pioneer in urban rejuvenation—specifically, the trend of bringing farms and gardens back to the inner city.
Detroit took a big step in that direction last month when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an agreement allowing the Hantz Group, a Michigan-based network of financial services companies, to take over about 1,500 parcels of land on the city’s east side and start demolishing abandoned buildings. Once the lots are cleared, the company plans to plant 15,000 trees, mainly maples and oaks.
Originally, Hantz floated the idea of converting the land to fruit orchards and Christmas tree farms, with the notion that they could provide neighborhood residents with both jobs and fresh produce. After objections that all that fruit could attract rats, the company scaled back to only hardwood trees, for the time being. The first step, Hantz officials acknowledge, is to show a commitment to getting a lot of trees in the ground while building trust with neighbors. There could, after all, be some dicey discussions ahead on such touchy subjects as the use of pesticides.
Critics say Hantz got one sweet deal—it paid a little more than $500,000 for the lots, or about $350 per parcel—and they’re dubious about its long-term commitment to the greening of Detroit. Company officials insist they’re in this for the long haul and say that they will spend another $3 million over the next three years, not to mention that they’ll be paying property taxes on land that hasn’t been generating any revenue for the city.
A lot of other cities are watching closely to see how this plays out. Is it an answer to reviving city neighborhoods in a relentless downward spiral? Will it make a difference only if built around large-scale projects like what Hantz has in mind? Or is all the talk of inner-city farms and orchards just the latest urban renewal fantasy?
For several years now, Mayor Dave Bing has been boosting urban agriculture as one of the keys to revitalizing Detroit, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who is now running the bankrupt city, signed off on the Hantz deal in October. Also, last year, the city became one of the partners in a Michigan State University program focused on developing innovative ways to grow crops and trees on vacant city lots.
Detroit has a lot more of those than most cities—more than 60,000—but this is becoming a common problem. A Brookings Institution study found that between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. jumped by 44 percent.
That’s a lot of empty space out there.
For dramatic effect, no trend in the greening of cities can top vertical gardens, which started out as plant-covered walls, but have evolved into skyscrapers draped in vegetation. It’s only fitting that French botanist Patrick Blanc, who invented the concept back in 1988, is behind what will soon become the world’s tallest vertical garden, one that will cover much of the exterior of a 33-story condo going up in Sydney, Australia. Almost half of the building’s exterior will be covered in vegetation—actually, 350 different species of plants. The effect, says Blanc, is to replicate the side of a cliff.
It’s easier being green
Here are other recent developments in the urban agriculture boom:
- Let’s go downtown and pick some apples: Earlier this year, a Vancouver business named Sole Food Farms converted an old gas station into North America’s largest urban orchard. It grew 500 fruit trees, mainly apple, in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, with the goal of not only selling organic food to local restaurants, but also providing jobs to recovering addicts and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
- Bargain basements: On Cleveland’s East Side, a designer named Jean Loria has created what she says is the “world’s first biocellar.” It follows her notion of reusing abandoned homes by tearing them down, then reinforcing the existing basements and topping them with slanted, greenhouse-like roofs that would make it possible to grow crops inside. Powered by solar energy and irrigated with harvested rain water, the odd-looking structures, says Loria, could be used for growing strawberries, mushrooms and other organic food.
- You too can be a farmer: Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law allowing local municipalities to lower property taxes on plots of three acres or less if the owners commit to growing food on them for at least five years. The program is voluntary, but it’s designed to motivate cities to create “urban agriculture incentive zones.”
- And here’s a new twist: The design of a skyscraper planned for Berlin is, on its own, pretty imaginative—its curved design creates a figure-8 shape. But the architects want the building, called Green8, to to wrap around multiple levels of vertical gardens that fill up the structure’s hollow sections. And all the greenery isn’t cosmetic—the intent is to include gardens, small orchards and mini-farms to provide fresh produce for the people who live there.
- Dirt is so overrated: For those who want to get in on the urban ag boom, but don’t have much farmable land, there’s GrowCube. Still in the prototype stage, it’s a device that works like a rotisserie of circling shelves while spraying a nutrient-filled mist directly on a plant’s roots. Its inventors acknowledge that since no dirt is involved, the growing process is “much more fragile” than conventional agriculture, but they point out that it uses 95 percent less water.
Video bonus: It’s a TED talk, so this video is a little long, but it would be hard to find a better evangelist for city farming than Ron Finley, who wants to train residents in South Central LA to grow their own food.
Video bonus bonus: One of the better-known urban farming operations in the U.S. is the Brooklyn Grange, which has been making a go of growing crops on large city rooftops. Here’s the trailer from the new documentary, Brooklyn Farmer.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And, to add a little snark to the mix, here’s a take on being an urban farmer from Funny or Die.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 12, 2013
You can’t really overstate the importance of bicycle locks as the first line of defense, and usually, the only deterrent against would-be crooks. As most police departments, particularly in large cities, are often overwhelmed with serious felony cases such as murders and burglaries, investigations into instances of bike theft tend to be treated as a much lower priority. And with such little recourse, the chances of owners actually recovering their bicycles is, sadly, around 5 percent.
“We make it easy for them (bike thieves),” Sgt. Joe McCloskey of the San Francisco Police Department told the San Francisco Bay Guardian a few years back. “The DA doesn’t do tough prosecutions. All the thieves we’ve busted have got probation. They treat it like a petty crime.”
Where there’s such an obvious blind spot for criminal activity, there will be rampant opportunism, naturally. The thievery of individual bike components has become increasingly popular since they don’t have serial numbers and thus represent an untraceable source of profit for black market dealers. ETA, a U.K.-based bicycle insurance company, reports that the the number of claims filed for stolen bike parts in 2011 doubled from incidences in 2010. “When you next park your bicycle, count the number of easily removable components and accessories on neighboring bikes and you’ll get an idea of the haul a thief can expect from a single bike rack,” Yannick Read, spokesperson for ETA told The Guardian.
In a world where high-performance road bicycles can cost $5,000, individual components, such as the saddle, can sell for hundreds of dollars. Professional bicycle thieves know this—and standard bicycle locks won’t stop them from swiping pricey parts.
In light of this, a few startups have developed specialized locks to prevent devious people from stealing the most valuable parts of a bicycle. A British company named Atomic22, for instance, offers a locking system that requires a one-of-a-kind key. However, it also means carrying around another key that you might possibly lose. Now, Sphyke, a German startup, has developed a similar device called the Sphyke C3N that offers security, without sacrificing convenience.
Sphyke security locks are designed to protect the saddle, seat pole, wheels and handle bars—vulnerable components that thieves typically target. This is achieved by replacing the standard mounting bolt screws, which keep these parts fastened to the bike, with a sturdy two-piece metal locking mechanism called a “lock nut.” As demonstrated in the instructional video for wheel locking, once the middle and back end known as the “skewer” and “cone” are in place, the user simply needs to tightly fasten the cylindrical “shield” part of the lock nut into place with a wrench and then slip the combination lock over it to secure the lock. A rubber protection cover is then fitted over the head as an aesthetic finish.
The company’s site says that the lock nut should fit most wheels, but for quick-release wheels bike owners would need to purchase the 4-piece product that includes a Sphyke-specific skewer and cone.
The kits, which vary from €22.90 ($30) for a simple seat post lock to €59 ($80) for a set that secures the wheels and saddle, also come with instructions for how to set your own combination. The important thing, of course, is to not forget the code you choose, otherwise you’ll have a whole other problem on your hands.
November 11, 2013
There are concept cars and then there are concept cars. Toyota’s new lineup of possibilities for tomorrow, unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show, shows the broad range, from the conceivable to the almost unimaginable, of one manufacturer’s innovative thinking.
On one end of the spectrum is the Toyota FCV, a hydrogen-fueled “practical concept” that Toyota plans to introduce sometime in 2015. Running on a well-developed clean-energy technology that rivals electric plug-ins, the four-door sedan boasts a driving range of over 300 miles and the ability to fuel up about as quickly and conveniently as gas-powered cars. On the other end is the science fiction-inspired FV2, a Tron-like kaleidoscope of futuristic technologies engineered to, as the company boasts, make cars ”fun to drive, again.” It’s also a car that none of us will be taking for a spin any time soon (if ever).
“This is an imagination piece rather than something that will be seen in production in the next few years,” an unnamed company spokesman told the BBC. “But some of the technologies we’re suggesting could be introduced further down the line—say in five to 10 years’ time.”
This “imaginary” theme is fitting since the Japanese automaker’s aim is to get drivers to momentarily put aside the conventional logic of steering by hand and consider doing so by using the body and its movements as a whole. While the Wall Street Journal has described the FV2 as basically a “four-wheel cross between a tilting three-wheel scooter and a Segway personal transporter,” navigating streets with the dashboard-less vehicle seems more akin to the sport of riding a skateboard in that controlling the vehicle is done through the driver shifting parts of the body to “intuitively move the vehicle forward and back, left and right,” according to the press release.
And like almost all futuristic models, the FV2′s computer systems are designed to be far more brainier than anything anyone’s ever experienced, so much so that it can darn near do our thinking for us. Hence it comes equipped with what Toyota calls an “intelligent transport system” that communicates with other vehicles and reads the road environment to generate optimal safety information, like if there’s a vehicle hidden in a blind spot at an intersection. The car also showcases technologies from the “Toyota Heart Project,” a collaboration between Toyota and other research institutions that led to the creation of twin robots named Kirobo and Mirata, both of which possess voice and facial recognition capabilities. The car adapts this technology to get a better read on the driver’s mood and to analyze each person’s driving history and other behavioral tendencies in order to offer up advice on potential destinations and ways to improve as a driver. The Verge reports that the same augmented reality system that conveys traffic information in the car’s windshield also changes color, almost like a mood ring, depending on the driver’s emotional status.
Of course, there’s a valid argument for “Who the heck needs all this?” Driving with two hands, for one, has worked out fine so far, and the categorical separation between skateboards, bicycles and cars has enabled city infrastructures comprised of dedicated bike lanes, sidewalks and highways to co-exist as a functional, if not perfect, transportation ecosystem. Shouldn’t Segways be enjoyed in less motorized areas and away from where the serious—and sometimes hazardous—business of getting somewhere on time takes place?
“I think in practical terms the FV2 won’t see the light of day,” Paul Newton of consultants IHS Automotive told the BBC. “If you are standing up and leaning to move it, my first thought would be, what if you hit something? The likelihood of it being licensed in today’s safety-conscious environment is zero.”
But keep in mind that as touchscreen devices such smartphones and tablets become constant, almost attached-to-the-hip forms of entertainment, people are continually wanting more and more out of their personal technologies. It isn’t enough that phones can make calls anymore, so it’s also not entirely unreasonable to believe that cars will someday be expected to also cater to our ever-expanding emotional needs. With the FV2, car companies like Toyota have at least shown that they’re hard at work on a contingency plan, no matter how far down the road that may be.
October 28, 2013
In the tragic aftermath of the Newtown school massacre, as is the case every time there’s a school shooting, Americans debated what should be done to ensure the safety of innocent schoolchildren. Gun control advocates are pushing to limit access to deadly weapons by imposing tougher firearm regulations, while the National Rifle Association suggests that armed security guards be stationed at every school in the country.
A group of students at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington D.C. has responded differently. The students have taken it upon themselves to come up with a device that prevents armed intruders from breaking into a classroom. Their invention, the DeadStop, is lightweight, shaped like a small, cup-sized plastic cylinder and easily slips over the common large hydraulic hinge known as a “door closer“ in just seconds.
“So many kids and adults were killed (at Sandy Hook). So we got together and we wanted to know how we could stop intruders from entering our school,” Deonté Antrom, a junior at Benjamin Banneker, said in an interview published on NBCNews.com.
The school, like many others across the nation, is equipped with doors that cannot be locked from the inside, in order to comply with building code regulations that allow for unobstructed campus-wide evacuations in case of a fire and other disasters. The DeadStop was designed as a workaround, preserving that need for a quick exit in an emergency while also enabling the class to secure itself inside the room when needed.
The design team of ten students, led by math teacher John Mahoney, started out with a prototype made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubing typically found in hardware stores and used a nail to keep the device fastened in place. The flaw with that early concept was that it was not rigid enough to keep the door tightly sealed, so the students are currently developing another version built from metal that would enable the device to work like a clamp.
“The device we have is detachable. It will just be in the teacher’s desk and when there is an announcement that there is a shooter in the building, they will be able to take it out and simply install it on the hinge,” Anjreyev Harvey, another junior on the team, told NBC News. “And how we have it designed, no matter how much the shooter shoots through the glass, or shoots at the hinge, he won’t be able to open (the door).”
Side-locking doors can be used by mischievous students to lock teachers out of their own classrooms, another reason why they are not typically used, and with the DeadStop being portable enough to be slipped into a bag or stored elsewhere, it can conveniently be kept in the teacher’s possession at all times.
The DeadStop is similar to another device called the Jamblock. Invented by Pittsburgh schoolteacher Bob Ploskunak, the Jamblock is designed to easily slip under the door and jam any attempts by gunmen to force themselves in. The lock is already being used by schools in two local districts and, like DeadStop, is garnering attention.
Students at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School hope to patent and release a final product of DeadStop that costs no more than $15. To make this possible, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has awarded the students a $6,600 grant as part of the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams program, which was created to inspire and motivate high school students to “cultivate their creativity and experience invention.”
The team will demonstrate its invention at MIT in June 2014.