A lightbulb moment on the road to safe cycling in light and in dark

A smart bicycle light has been developed to respond intuitively to the road surface and time of day

Mon, Mar 17, 2014, 01:05

A couple of years ago Philip McAleese was working as an engineer in Singapore where his daily commute saw him weaving his bicycle through the city’s busy streets: it didn’t take him long to realise he needed a good bike light.

“The traffic there didn’t really have a lot of bikes integrated into it and so all of the drivers just didn’t know how to interact safely with bicycles,” he says. “I really wanted something that improved my visibility and hence safety.”

The “obvious thing to do” was put a brighter LED light on his bike.

This would certainly make him stand out on the road, but bright LEDs tend to eat power, thereby creating the need for a “great big battery pack”. More conventional lights normally project a straight beam which isn’t too helpful either, “because being rear-ended is actually quite a rare type of cycling accident”.

One day on his way to work, McAleese had “an epiphany”, as he puts it. “I was cycling along and I was looking at the smartphone I had on the handle bars. It was telling me how fast I was cycling and where I was going and all these things.”

There was a lot of sensor technology on that device “and I wondered could we use some of that to [develop] a light that’s bright when it needs to be and conserves energy when it doesn’t.

“It was really from there that I looked at the sensor technology that was in smartphones and integrated it into See.Sense to create the first intelligent bike light.”

A graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied electronic and software engineering, McAleese worked in Singapore for two years between September 2010 and 2012.

While there, his work involved researching different sensors and he quickly realised some of the cutting edge technology he had encountered in Queen’s had become mainstream and “instead of costing thousands of pounds it was now costing us tens of pence”.

Early days
With his wife, Irene, he prototyped designs for a bike light which would respond intuitively to the road surface and time of day. The pair were eager to have a piece of a growing UK cycling industry, so development began in earnest when they returned home.

First they had to figure out a way to filter out road noise and to prevent the bicycle vibrations interfering with the sensors. “You’re accelerating, you’re breaking you’re pedalling, cornering . . . and it’s quite noisy and violent, so actually the trick is really filtering out that noise to get to real data that’s useful for the bike light.”

They are now ready to launch the light at the end of this month and it will retail for £40 (€49), about the current price of a high-end model.

McAleese claims it achieves the elusive combination of being lightweight and very bright. It avoids the need for a heavy battery pack by adjusting its brightness according to the road surface and ambient light. It can also tell whether a cyclist is at a roundabout, a junction, going through a tunnel and so on.

Detecting change
“Imagine you’re coming up to a roundabout,” McAleese explains. “As a cyclist the first thing you’ll do is you’ll pause and you’ll look at the roundabout, look at the exits and decide how you’re going to cycle around it. The light will detect that initial pause, that’s its first indicator that you’re doing something.

“It then waits for the grippier breaking surface that they quite often put just before the Give Way or the Yield signs at a roundabout. So it will detect that change in road surface and it knows that it has become more grippy, that’s its second indication.

“The third indication will be as you start to move left if you’re turning to the left on the roundabout or you take up lane position to go straight or move to the right to move right . . . Through that profile it knows you’re likely to be at a junction, roundabout, somewhere in traffic, whatever the different scenarios are, and it increases its flashing pattern and brightness to increase visibility.”

He adds that the device will also be daylight visible, in the same way that cars built since 2011 must come equipped with running lights for day time driving.

See.Sense attracted Kickstarter funding and recognition from a number of enterprise awards.

So far, McAleese happily points out, they haven’t had to give away any equity. They have a patent pending and are currently in talks with retailers.

The future
In the future McAleese and his wife hope to widen the company’s range. For one thing, smart sensor technology can be used to identify where potholes will form ahead of time.

“So that’s data that we’re looking at; how do we harvest that, how do we commercialise it?”

There will be time for that later.

“We’re keeping the cycling focus to begin with just to make sure we get market penetration for our future products,” McAleese says, “but we would be very much looking at what we can do with these sensors and where are all the different use cases for them.”

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