Monday, April 14, 2008

Integrated Sensors in 'Intelligent' Bicycle Parts

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institutes for Manufacturing Technology and Applied Materials Research IFAM, for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF and for Integrated Circuits IIS are developing a manufacturing technology that allows piezoelectric sensors and actuators to be embedded into bicycle components during the casting process.

For demonstration of their new idea, they presented an 'intelligent' pedal crank at the Hannover Messe (Germany) that is able to sense the pedaling forces in each leg and show how even a cyclist's pedaling is. To read more, check out this article in Science Daily.

Regarding this development, I have thought about the idea before. Power meters that are available in the market today do not really show forces independent of each leg. Sure you can argue that these leg forces may be obtained through individual leg testing in a stationary setting that a trainer provides. A little elementary knowledge of physics and dynamics can help anyone get the numbers they need.

But the point here is to get that objective information across to the rider as he pedals outside, say in training or racing. This may be real time information or feeding to a storage device for later retrieval and analysis. It could be invaluable in helping him balance out the biomechanical inefficiencies that hitherto is based much on 'feel'.

But even though the ideas are out, the bigger questions are related to how you can embed a sensing element into a component in a cost effective manner or how the design and manufacturing processes should change or improve to reflect these new advancements.

Integrated sensors are not a new idea. Several researchers are working on incorporating intelligence through embedded systems such as in 'smart concrete' that can detect strains in the material in a building or bridge, or in aircraft wings that can sense critical fatigue parameters before its too late. There is a famous materials scientist at my university who is working on smart concrete. If you want to read about the research, click here.

This idea could be further developed as technology advances and you could soon have intelligent carbon fiber forks and frames that 'sense' the health of the bicycle, thus giving critical information to a user about the state of the bike and the ability to forecast structural disasters that are so common in composites. This can be done in a way as to not unnecessarily complicate things and shoot up the weights of bicycles.

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