Canadian smart-bike watches riders’ backs in traffic

The Valour smart-bike, made by Toronto-based Vanhawks, also gives directions, tracks performance and alerts rider if it’s stolen.

0 March 5, 2015
by Treena Hein

Vanhawks' Industrial Designer, Dave Waddell   (left), and Mark Remennik, Chief of Design, working on the Toronto-based company's smart-bike, the Valour.

Vanhawks’ Industrial Designer, Dave Waddell (left), and Mark Remennik, Chief of Design, working on the Toronto-based company’s smart-bike, the Valour.

Anyone who has ridden a bicycle in the city can tell you how difficult and dangerous it can be. Just try finding an unfamiliar destination when your life depends on your traffic focus being razor-sharp. It would be much easier and safer if you were riding a bike that provides easy GPS navigation guidance, and also alerts you to nearby objects. It would also be great if the bike could track and store your athletic performance data – distance travelled, calories burned and so on – and keep it for comparison.

It would be even better if the bike was networked with other bikes in the city, creating the option to optimize your route as the area is mapped and scored in real time for things like traffic congestion and road condition (with every bump detected with a gyroscope and magnetometer). The cherry on top is that if it’s been stolen, the same bike will alert the whole networked community, so that if your bike is detected nearby to another, you’ll receive its last-known whereabouts.

Meet the Valour, which offers riders all of this in a single sleek and lightweight package. “The initial concept was to create a light, carbon fibre bike with GPS and a mobile app that alerts you when it’s stolen,” says Niv Yahel, chief technical officer and co-founder of Valour-maker Vanhawks, based in Toronto. “As we worked towards this, Sohaib (Sohaib Zahid, co-founder and CEO) would ask me, “Is this really the bike of the future?”

Their thinking was propelled further in this direction a few months later when a colleague asked them to consider what prevents people from commuting by bike. That brainstorming led to the Valour as it exists today, a cycle-computer partnership system that learns from your rides – and the rides of other users. The Valour powers itself through efficient harvesting of cycling power, with a low drag dynamo hub, active rectifier and switched mode regulators. Power is stored in a lithium ion cell, but the system will still function while you are riding should the battery fail.

While the journey to a finished commercial product took a while, the prototype was hammered out at lightning speed, literally just before the fledgling company launched its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $820,000.

“I knew that in order for Vanhawks to pitch a convincing case, we needed to have a working prototype,” says Yahel. “In one weekend, I had to create an LED navigation system, blindspot detection system and speed monitoring, all of which communicated with a smart phone app via Bluetooth. I didn’t sleep, and managed to finish the prototype an hour before it had to go to the airport.”

As anyone can imagine, moving from initial prototype to high fidelity prototype involved many tasks, from software development, creation of smart phone apps and server architecture, to overall bike design, firmware creation and building printed circuit boards (PCB) to house the electronics.

“We learned you can burn a lot of time in systems integration if your specs are not laid out,” says Yahel. “For example, ignoring PCB identification, I can have the best-looking PCB with the best radio performance in the universe, but when you have to stick it inside an enclosure, things like space constraints, enclosure material and how close things sit to the radios all come into play.”

In creating the system to detect objects entering the Valour’s vicinity, the team chose to alert riders with hand vibration. This provides an immediate heads-up regardless of where you’re looking, and doesn’t complicate the LED GPS-enabled directional guidance interface that’s already on the handlebars. The other end of the system, ultrasonic range finding required a custom solution that Yahel decided to tackle.

“It all went fine, except for the industrial design,” he says. “The tech is much larger than any other sensor on the Valour, and when you throw in the fact that the speakers sit at the back of the bike, over a metre from the sensor, we had EM interference, failing electromagnetic compatibility and a big challenge routing the electrical (and mechanical) cables through the frame, which is really skinny.”

The overall bike design was also changed to better fit the needs of average urban commuters, with safety and riding fun equally emphasized. The team started with a unique split frame design (to accommodate a Gates carbon belt instead of a bike chain) and lowered the centre of gravity by dropping the bottom bracket, so it’s easier for riders to put their feet down in traffic. The hand position was raised to achieve a more upright riding position. The team also realized the Valour should have a standard round seat post, allowing riders flexibility in type of seat and seat position. There are future plans for a proprietary fender system, and storage mounting solutions as well.

The name Vanhawks (from the Dutch, ‘of the hawk’) was chosen because of the hawk’s intelligence, beauty and because of the long-standing partnership and companionship between hawks and humans, dating back to 600 BCE.

“Our philosophy is not only to provide an elegant, intelligent and smart cycling companion,” says Zahid, “but to allow our customers to connect with their physical and online surroundings, all to make cycling safer, more enjoyable and an experience to remember.”

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