The Future is Here: The Copenhagen Wheel

copenhagen_wheelFans of the cable show Weeds ought to instantly recognize this invention. It was featured as a product invented by one of the characters while living (predictably) in Copenhagen. In addition, it was the subject of news stories, articles, design awards, and a whole lot of public interest. People wanted to get their hands on it, and for obvious reasons.

It’s known as the Copenhagen Wheel, a device invented by MIT SENSEable City Lab back in 2009 to electrify the bicycle. Since that time, engineers at MIT have been working to refine it in preparation for the day when it would be commercially available. And that time has come, as a new company called Superpedestrian announced that it has invested $2.1 million in venture capital to make the device available to the public.

copenhagen_wheel1Superpedestrian founder Assaf Biderman, who is also the SENSEable City lab associate director and one of the creators of the wheel, along with lab director Carlo Ratti, had this to say:

The project touched an exposed nerve somehow. Aside from news coverage and design awards, people were wanting it. Over 14,000 people emailed saying ‘I want to buy it, sell it, make it for you.

Three years after inventing it, Biderman finally decided that it was time to spin off a company to make it happen. MIT filed all the relevant patents, and Superpedestrian acquired exclusive licenses to the Copenhagen Wheel technology. And by late November, they plan to launch the wheel to the public for the very first time.

copenhagen_wheel2And though the much of the facts are being carefully guarded in preparation for the release, some details are already known. For example, the wheel can be fitted to almost any bike, is controlled by sensors in the peddles, and has a power assist feature that doesn’t require any work on the part of the rider. And according to Biderman, its range “will cover the average suburban commute, about 15 miles to and from work and back home.”

On top of that, a regenerative braking system stores energy for later use in a lithium battery. The wheel also comes with an app that allows users to control special features from their smartphone. These include being able to lock and unlock the bike, select motor assistance, and get real-time data about road conditions. An open-source platform called The Superpedestrian SDK also exists to allow developers to make on their own apps.

smartwheelrotatingInterestingly enough,the Copenhagen Wheel also has a rival, who’s appearance on the market seems nothing short of conspiratorial. Its competitor, the FlyKly Smart Wheel, a device which has raised over $150,000 on Kickstarter so far. It is extremely similar to the Copenhagen Wheel in most respects, from its electrical assistance to the fact that it can be integrated via smartphone.

According to Biderman, the appearance of the Smart Wheel is just a coincidence, though it is similar to their product. And her company really doesn’t have to worry about competition, since the Copenhagen Wheel has years of brand recognition and MIT name behind it. In terms of the the target audience, Biderman says that they are looking at targeting city dwellers as well as cyclists:

If you’re an urbanite, you can use it to move all around, and go as far as the edges of most cities with this quite easily. You overcome topographical challenges like hills. The point is to attract more people to cycling.

Though no indication has been given how much an individual unit will cost, it is expected to have a price point that’s competitive with today’s e-bikes.

copenhagen_wheel3The FlyKly Smart Wheel, by comparison, can be pre-ordered for $550 apiece. In total, that campaign has raised $301,867 (their original goal was $100,000) since opening on Oct. 16th. As a result, they have been able to reach their first “stretch goal” of producing a 20″ wheel. If they can reach $500,000 before the campaign closes on Nov. 25th, they will be able to deliver on their other goals: a motor brake and a glow in the dark casing.

For some time, designers and engineers have been trying to find ways to make alternative transportation both effective and attractive. Between these designs and a slew of others that will undoubtedly follow, it looks like e-bicycling may be set to fill that void. Combined with electric cars, self-driving cars, hydrogen cars, robotaxis, podcars, and high speed trains, we could be looking at the revolution in transit that we’ve been waiting for.


Judgement Day Update: The Robotic Bartender and DARPA’s Latest Hand

robot_bartenderRobots have come a long way in recent years, haven’t they? From their humble beginnings, servicing human beings with menial tasks and replacing humans on the assembly line, they now appear poised to take over other, more complex tasks as well. Between private companies and DARPA-developed concepts, it seems like just a matter of time before a fully-functioning machine is capable of performing all our work for us.

One such task-mastering robot was featured at the Milan Design Week this year, an event where fashion tales center stage. It’s known as the Makr Shakr, a set of robotic arms that are capable of mixing drinks, slicing fruit, and capable of making millions of different recipes. The result of a collaborative effort between MIT SENSEable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati, an Italian architecture firm, this robot is apparently able to match wits with any human bartender.

robot_bartender1While at the Milan Design Week, the three robotic arms put on quite the show, demonstrating their abilities to a crowd of wowed spectators. According to the website, this technology is not just a bar aid, but part of a larger movement in robotics:

Makr Shakr aims to show the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ paradigm through the simple process design-make-enjoy, and in just the time needed to prepare a new cocktail.

In a press release, the company described the process. It begins with the user downloading an app to create their order to the smartphone as well as peruse the recipes that other users have come up with. They then communicate the order to the Makr Shakr and “[the] cocktail is then crafted by three robotic arms, whose movements reproduce every action of a barman–from the shaking of a Martini to the muddling of a Mojito, and even the thin slicing of a lemon garnish.”

robot_bartender2Inspired by the ballerina Roberto Bolle, whose “movements were filmed and used as input for the programming of the Makr Shakr robots”, the arms appear most graceful when they do their work. In addition, the design system monitors exactly how much booze each patron is consuming, which, in theory, could let the robot-bartenders know when it’s time to cut off designers who have thrown back a few too many.

Check out the video of the Makr Shakr in action:

Another major breakthrough comes, yet again, from DARPA. For years now, they have been working with numerous companies and design and research firms in order to create truly ambulatory and dextrous robot limbs. In some cases, as with the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), this involves creating a machine that can carry supplies and keep up with troops. In others, this involves the creation of robotic hands and limbs to help wounded veterans recover and lead normal lives again.

And you may recall earlier this year when DARPA unveiled a cheap design for a robotic hand that was able to use tools and perform complex tasks (like changing a tire). More recently, it showcased a design for a three-fingered robot, designed in conjunction with the firm iRobot – the makers of the robotic 3D printer – and with support from Harvard and Yale, that is capable of unlocking and opening doors. Kind of scary really…


The arm is the latest to come out of the Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program, a program designed to create robots that are no longer expensive, cumbersome, and dependent on human operators. Using a Kinect to zero in on the object’s location before moving in to grab the item, the arm is capable of picking up thin objects lying flat, like a laminated card or key. In addition, the hand’s three-finger configuration is versatile, strong, and therefore capable of handling objects of varying size and complexity.

When put to the test (as shown in the video below), the hand was able to pick up a metal key, insert it into a lock, and open a door without any assistance. Naturally, a human operator is still required at this stage, but the use of a Kinect sensor to identify objects shows a degree of autonomous capability, and the software behind its programming is still in the early development phase.

And while the hand isn’t exactly cheap by everyday standards, the production cost has been dramatically reduced. Hands fabricated in batches of 1,000 or more can be produced for $3,000 per unit, which is substantially less than the current cost of $50,000 per unit for similar technology. And as usual, DARPA has its eye on future development, creating hands that would be used in hazardous situations – such as diffusing IEDs on the battlefield – as well as civilian and post-combat applications (i.e. prosthetics).

And of course, there’s a video for the ARM in action as well. Check it out, and then decide for yourself if you need to be scared yet: