In partnership with BT
The humble bike light has been given the ultimate tech makeover, equipping urban cyclists for almost any challenge the concrete jungle can throw at them
Everyone knows that bike lights are useful bits of kit for staying safe on the road. But imagine if they could take safety to the next level, telling you about accident-prone areas to avoid and even informing city planning to create safer roads. Imagine, too, if they could text your location to a friend if you did have an accident. And tell you about air pollution so you can plan a healthier route. And deter bike thieves. And tell you where to avoid potholes.
Luckily enough, all this ingenious stuff and more can be done right now thanks to the super-smart ICON bike light from See.Sense, a gadget that could well become the cyclist’s best friend. And it’s all down to data. Rich, juicy, data collected by a sensor in the light, meaning that the sky really is the limit – especially since the ICON can help tell you what might be coming out of the sky or floating around in it before you even hit the saddle.
These kinds of smart features helped the ICON to stamp its mark at the BT Infinity Lab SME Awards, a competition to celebrate and nurture innovation among start-ups, this year themed around ‘Connected Cities’. So impressed were judges, that the ICON scooped not just the ‘Smart City’ category (for its potential in helping shape more effective urban infrastructure), but also the overall competition prize.
The ICON was developed by former electronics engineer Philip McAleese, inspired while navigating the manic streets of Singapore on his bike (side note for cyclists in London, New York or wherever: you think you’ve got it bad? Try bike commuting through Singapore rush hour traffic). After suffering a serious accident on his bike, McAleese began thinking about smarter ways of improving safety for cyclists
His aim was to create something with contextual awareness, something that would adapt to different dangerous situations as they arose. The result was a hefty upgrade to the tried-and-tested bike light which flashed brighter and faster (even in daytime – when the majority of collisions happen), and boosted its output when it sensed car headlights approaching, therefore increasing the cyclist’s visibility too.
The data can highlight early-forming potholes, meaning roads can be repaired before the holes become hazardous
Clever stuff. But the ICON’s IQ goes off the chart when you start looking at the built-in sensor that collects and sends all kinds of useful data to the rider’s phone – via an app – by monitoring bike movement and behaviour. That data can highlight anything from ‘near-miss’ accident hotspots to early-forming potholes, meaning that roads can be repaired before the holes become too hazardous.
This is where the ‘smart city’ element really begins to come into its own, but in order for that to happen, it’s essential for cyclists utilise the ICON’s data capabilities. Irene McAleese – See.Sense co-founder and CMO, and Philip’s wife – explains how they encouraged riders to get app-happy: “To encourage cyclists to connect their light to the app, there needed to be compelling reasons, so we built-in some features to provide more of an immediate benefit,” says McAleese.
These benefits come in the form of a crash detection alert – which senses if the cyclist has a crash and sends out a text message to a nominated contact with the rider’s location – and theft deterrent, which alerts the owner’s phone if their bike is being tampered with.
Not bad for a little bike light, huh? And there’ll be more good stuff on the way as more information is collected. “As we gather more data, our aim is to share it back with cyclists through the app, so that they can get useful information to help them as urban cyclists,” says McAleese. “Things like route planning to avoid known dangerous areas or mapping a route with smoother, more comfortable paths. Cities could communicate with people and even offer rewards for those who cycle more frequently.”
If you’re impressed, you’re not alone. It was this kind of integrated thinking that allowed the ICON to dazzle judges at the BT Infinity Lab Awards. Will Pryke, head of BT Infinity Lab, explains what made the ICON stand out: “It’s the mix of utility for the cyclist and the wider societal impact of the data being collected. We were looking at how smart cities could be implemented, and getting cyclists to buy-into the principle of supporting the city in its use of data is a fantastic thing.”
See.Sense is looking at whether more women in India would feel safer and cycle more in better-lit areas
The ICON, then, is exactly the kind of innovative, forward-thinking project that the Infinity Lab competition (the 2016 instalment is the eighth competition, and the second to focus on SMEs) was created to support. The awards are part of the wider Infinity Lab programme, a project that began as a vehicle to help BT engage with the SME and start-up community, and has developed just as rapidly as the businesses it engages with.
Pryke explains why it’s important to support these kinds of businesses: “BT is an international communications provider and we service a million SMEs in the UK. These businesses offer a layer of innovation and creativity that is absolutely the future of finding success for us and the UK in general.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into developing our networks and services, but we can’t develop everything, so an open innovation approach – where we do the best of what we can do and then look for companies we can partner with that share our vision – is the key to adding value.”
The See.Sense team were, says McAleese, thrilled to win the competition. “For a start-up, it’s wonderful to have external validation that what you’re doing is understood and valued, and that others can see what we’re trying to do,” she confirms.
A concrete example of exactly what the ICON can do is currently being formed in Milton Keynes, a large town in southern England where the local council is conducting a trial with the ICON to inform town planning. From data collected through the app, the council is mapping cycle paths around Milton Keynes, looking at cyclists’ favourite routes, road conditions and accident hotspots, and building infrastructure to complement the data; this could include making sure that planned road projects don’t disturb popular and safe cycle routes.
“Crowdsourced data from cyclists is valuable information that needs to be incorporated into a city’s ecosystem”
See.Sense are also in talks with people in Delhi, India, to explore how the ICON could be tailored to tackle some of the city’s problems. This includes adding an air pollution sensor to future versions, and utilising the existing temperature sensor, so that people who find it too hot to cycle around Delhi could look for microclimates and shaded areas to plan cooler routes. Even more encouragingly, See.Sense is looking at whether more women in India would feel safer and cycle more in better-lit areas, using this research to provide a business case for adding more lighting to darker locations.
It’s not hard to see why McAleese is confident that the ICON will encourage more people to take up cycling around the globe, and also help shape how cycling infrastructure in urban areas is built in the coming years. You don’t need to be a data geek – or even a cyclist – to realise that the ICON could be a hugely beneficial game-changer – for a lot of people.
“Cities will increasingly be looking at data to make decisions, and crowdsourced data from cyclists is valuable information that needs to be incorporated into a city’s ecosystem,” says McAleese. “What we offer with the ICON is distinct from other data available – it’s a piece of the puzzle that needs to be included.”