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Analog Angle Blog

Accelerometers, Analog, Algorithms & the Quest for Better Bike Helmets

You may have seen the radically different replacement for the standard bicycle helmet, developed by a company called Hövding in Malmö, Sweden. In brief, it’s a scarf/airbag, sort of a miniature version of the auto airbag, complete with sensors, circuitry, trigger, and exploding mixture. There was an interesting perspective on it in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Safety From Sweden: An Inflatable Bike Helmet.”

Whether this $550, one-time-use inflating helmet is a better idea than a standard helmet (typically $50 to $100) is a great topic for discussion after work with your fellow engineers at the local watering hole: Does it have a better “coolness” factor? Is it more comfortable? Does it do a better job? Is it worth it?

Is this the future of the bicycle helmet?

Is this the future of the bicycle helmet?

But one thing is for sure, it is yet another example of how low-cost MEMS-based sensors — in this case, gyroscopes and accelerometers — are dramatically changing the approach to long-standing designs. In turn, these sensors require support electronics, processors with embedded algorithms, power subsystems, and more to complete the final product. In short, a complex, active device replaces a basic, passive product.

I have mixed feelings about this trend of adding “smarts” to such basic products and often completely re-thinking them. On one side, that’s how we sometimes get significant innovation and advances, ones that change what we can do, what we understand, and how we solve a problem. On the other, we are adding complexity and new headaches to what was a long-established, fully understood, and cost-effective approach. Now, you have to read a detailed user's manual and worry about the battery status.

It’s not just the helmet that is seeing this type of change. Nest's Leaf, an intelligent, Internet-enabled thermostat, is another example. This $250 unit replaces the basic smart thermostat, which sells for under $100 (and a plain basic one is under $50) but can do much, much more. The two questions are: Do you want it to do that much more? Is the new solution a bigger headache than the problem it addresses? Apparently Google thinks the answers are “yes” and “no,” respectively, since the search engine giant is buying Nest for $3 billion.

Time and the market will tell us which, if any, of these highly advanced versions of standard, established products is judged worthy and which are just overkill; I’m not foolish or confident enough to try to predict the outcomes. But there’s no doubt that the availability of accelerometer and gyroscope sensors, and associated ease of design-in for what used to be very difficult parameters to capture (motion and acceleration) is changing how we think about what we can do. Look at what games such as the Wii controller have done with them, in an application that just a few years ago used just joystick and pushbutton controllers.

Once again, those pundits who think analog is on the way out and doomed don’t understand the reality of physical parameters, or what the real world is like. The fact is that these sensors and their support circuits are not only changing what we can do, but how we can think about some long-standing designs and products. Some will succeed, some will fail, but many of them will be very interesting to see.

Are there areas where you think these sensors will open up dramatic new design approaches? Are there places you think the dramatic difference is not worth it, and for what reason?

41 comments on “Accelerometers, Analog, Algorithms & the Quest for Better Bike Helmets

  1. Scott Elder
    January 21, 2014

    I'm always a bit bothered when product innovation is used to dummy down safety.  On one hand we have products like airbags which are supplemental safety systems in case of human error.  I suppose one might make that same argument here, but in this case it is not supplemental, but rather an unproven replacement.  Is it better?

    A similar argument for a system using gyros and other sensors is that of remote controlled drones which one day may carry passengers.  Personally, I'd like to know that there is another human or two in the cockpit who will suffer the same fate as the passengers if a critical mistake is made.  This is in contrast to someone on the ground thinking about the party later in the evening.

    So as long as these things are supplemental and not replacements, this is probably a good thing.  Just like GPS and gyros in a plane.

     

  2. Davidled
    January 21, 2014

    Generally speaking, all sensors equipped and installed at the vehicle help the driver and passengers get the safety driving. But sometime, driver rely on these system 100 percent and at least I think that driver pays attention himself or herself on road.  These sensors are only supplemental no matter what type systems are, because machine is only machine, not human being.

  3. RedDerek
    January 22, 2014

    Quite interesting approach. Now to make it less bulky around the neck. I did check out the website reference and it looks to be a nice product. Cost is a major factor for a one-time use though.

    Wonder when the racing circuit will pick this up?

  4. goafrit2
    January 22, 2014

    @Daej But sometime, driver rely on these system 100 percent and at least I think that driver pays attention himself or herself on road.  

    You are thinking really hard. Have you not heard drivers involved in accidents say they stopped at the STOP SIGN but they forgot to look Left and Right before moving forward. Some people outsource their minds to instructions and technologies. Why a Stop Sign?It is to ensure you stop and have time to check before you move forward. But some simply stop and continue moving without checking if the road is clear. After all the rule says, stop at the STOP SIGN and they just did!

  5. samicksha
    January 23, 2014

     Good product and approach, its sensors are powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries, which we need to worry in same manner as we for our phones.
    If an accident is detected, the device inflates with helium in a fraction of a second.
    once it inflates it cant be used again, again at $500 thats a pretty expensive one time use helmet.

  6. Netcrawl
    January 23, 2014

    Excellent product! sensors are making a huge presence in the automotive comfort and safety applications, and could be a next big thing in car technology. But at $500 I think it quite expensive,  sensors has huge potential unfortunately the cost of installing sensors has not kept pace, it still one of the biggest challenges here. the cost or installing a wires to power sensors and data dwarfs the cost of the sensor itself, consumers ideally want a technology that is low cost, receives periodic data reliably with low latency and consume less power.

  7. Netcrawl
    January 23, 2014

    Its true sometimes driver rely on those systems 100 percent, right now there's an increasing requirements for self-test capabilities and higher accuracy, these requirements are fueling the trend for a more intelligent sensor devices and much more sophisticated safety applications. Today intelligent sensors  in vehicle are widely deployed in automotive comfort and safety applications, application like the integrated distance sensors that can sense and respond to changes in distance to the car ahead much faster that a driver can, it can reduce the chance of rear-end collision.   

  8. cookiejar
    January 23, 2014

    Would you trust the electronics, software algorithm, battery and ruggedness with your life? As engineers we know all that can go wrong.  That's why designers of Ferris wheels and roller coaster never ride their own designs.

     
    There's something reassuring about a passive device like a seat-belt or a bicycle helmet. Perhaps the technology has applications where a passive design is impractical.   

    The frail elderly are prone to falling and breaking their hips or fracturing their skulls etc.  whether due to impaired balance or icy surfaces.  The same technology could be used to inflate an airbag resembling the Michelin man.

  9. Bill_Jaffa
    January 23, 2014

    I understand your point, but many of the safety items in today's cars–including the airbags–use the same kind of electronics. So, like it or not, you are already trusting your life to active, electronic-based systems.

  10. samicksha
    January 24, 2014

    I am not sure but i have been reading around on google that helmet uses cold gas inflator technology found in automobiles, which means this may involves the explosion of ignition material to break apart a burst disk, allowing the stored gas to inflate. Is It ??

  11. Vishal Prajapati
    January 24, 2014

    Very nice idea and nice concept. The technological advancements are definitely improving our lives. And we are relying on active electronics more and more. It is welcome when it is not related to life critical situations. As said the car has airbag dosn't mean you don't need to wear seat belt. There is always a passive backup which much more reliable than active electronics. So, if technology is helping us as a suppliment it is very good way of improving overall life standards. But it should not be the exact replacement.

  12. D Feucht
    January 25, 2014

    As a designer of pulse generators used to test airbags in manufacturing, I am familiar with some of the pyrotechnics involved. I do not think I would like to have that pyrotechnic subsystem next to my brain, even with a skull in between. It would be designed to avoid accidents, but so are automobiles.

    Like GMO crop seeds, this might be another misapplication of technology simply because it can be applied. The price argues for the helmet. How about the weight? I would not be surprised if the airbag protector were heavier. If so, then what problem does this solve better than the helmet? I have a bike helmet and it is optimized for weight, cost, and durability. It can be (and has been) reused after an accident. Perhaps the hackneyed addage bears repeating:

    “If it's not broke, don't fix it.”

    Of course I might be overlooking other criteria that would be in the airbag's favor, such as having more effective protection. But I doubt this too. Modern helmets demonstrate that our mechanical engineering counterparts can sometimes stay ahead of electronics engineers in solving a problem optimally.

  13. amrutah
    January 25, 2014

    Samicksha:

    I agree, its a costly affair and I feel that the bikes are more prone for small accidents (just take a case of rear wheel spin-off on gravel).  But this kind a head gear might be a life-saving when people use it on expedition.

     

  14. Netcrawl
    January 25, 2014

    @Vishal I agree with you, sensors like this need to work under extreme temperature conditions and also high humidity, all components are tested and meet the highest quality standards. This could be achieved by focusing mostly on package development in order to protect sensors and component inside, and at the same time enable high-precision measurement of environmental parameters.      

  15. samicksha
    January 27, 2014

    Yes, full points on life saving but recently realised that it is not only a simple head gear, company urges users to report back if they suffer accidents so that it can analyze data gathered by the collar's black box. Sounds interesting…

  16. amrutah
    January 28, 2014

    “company urges users to report back if they suffer accidents so that it can analyze data gathered by the collar's black box. ”  

    Yes, Its interesting that they want to support the device but its too risky to spend $536 everytime.  But the company says that some insurance company pays part of the expense which is great.

  17. samicksha
    January 29, 2014

    I agree you, infact in India we can get MotorBike for $536. I hope they prove the relevance of cost.

  18. eafpres
    January 29, 2014

    It is an interesting application of technology.  Unfortunately I think it is incredibly misplaced.

    Lots of children suffer injuries riding bikes.  If you want some figures, here are some from the Fayette County Health Department, in Georgie.  If you read through the stats at the link, or any of volumes available, you will find that lots of injuries involve car-bike accidents, but many, many do not.  Even the airbaghead makers cite users who just fall off their bikes.

    The page at the link cites 85% reduction in risk of head injury and 88% reduction in risk of brain injury by wearing standard bike helmets.  A conclusion could be drawn that kids should be encouraged to wear bike helmets.  Fortunately, that is becoming more popular, in some part due to sports like X-games where kids see pros wearing helmets while riding bikes, skate boarding, etc.

    Now, this product seems to be targeted at people who might not like wearing unfashionable helmets.  I think this is a horrible approach that will do more harm that good.  Further, will this prevent child head injuries if they just fall off their bike, or slide down and into a curb with their head?

    The application gets into a general area of signature analysis, of which I think way too many companies are thinking is their pot of gold in the internet of everything race.  The thinking goes like this: “If I can put a sensor on the rider, and I can do lots of crashes and record the gyro and accelerometer signatures, I can write an algorithm to see a crash before it is over, and I can take action to prevent injury.”

    The problem is, what if there are signifcant, and dangerous events that fall outside of your data set?

    Further, since so many kids ride bikes, they are an especially at-risk group.  How may of them do you think will be outfitted with this expensive, disposable gizmo?

    So I'm sorry, but no matter how nifty the application of technology, I think this is sending the wrong message and has 0 chance of helping those that need it most.

  19. fasmicro
    January 30, 2014

    >> Would you trust the electronics, software algorithm, battery and ruggedness with your life? As engineers we know all that can go wrong.

    If you fly the aeroplane, you do. It is that simple that a group of people will enter a “bird” that offers no viable alternative to safety if something happens in the sky. When people say we cannot trust tools, I tell them, it is because standards have have not been well implemented. When things are build with best quality, many things are reliable.

  20. eafpres
    February 2, 2014

    @fasmicro–It is very important to recognize the amount of reglation, testing, and validation that goes into aviation flight systems, and automotive safety systems.  In part these hurdles the manufacturers must overcome are responsible for the long development cycles.  I don't know about getting something qualified for a commercial aircraft, but I do know in automotive.  Generally, the Tier1 suppliers are working 2-4 years ahead of what you see in a model year release.

    I'm sure Hövding has done a lot of development and testing.  But are they subject to the intense scrutiny and requirements those in the transporation supply chains are?  Even the so-called styrofoam helmets must pass a number of standards testing requirements; you can see which ones by looking at the labels inside the helmet.

  21. fasmicro
    February 2, 2014

    >> Personally, I'd like to know that there is another human or two in the cockpit who will suffer the same fate as the passengers if a critical mistake is made.

    A British man said he will not enter a plane the pilot is not inside. It is easier to control some buttons and do whatever you like when your live is not in danger. The trust in the aviation industry is that the pilot faces the same risk as the passengers.

  22. fasmicro
    February 2, 2014

    >> These sensors are only supplemental no matter what type systems are, because machine is only machine, not human being.

    When you read Mercedes Benz manuals on some of the new sensory innovations they have in the last few years, they have a FULL DISCLAIMER that these innovations must not take away the common sense of the driver. Gyros and XLs cannot save a man that wants to hit a rock.

  23. fasmicro
    February 2, 2014

    >> Now to make it less bulky around the neck. I did check out the website reference and it looks to be a nice product. Cost is a major factor for a one-time use though.

    I think this is a no-brainer also. There is nothing wrong is giving additional supplementary protection to the driver. However, if that really helps is another matter. Provided there is adequate training, small-scale accidents could be mitigated but I do not see how they will help in big impacts. It is like the NFL players having sensors in their heads. When it is between two players, could work. But when between a bike and car, no chance.

  24. fasmicro
    February 2, 2014

    >> Why a Stop Sign?It is to ensure you stop and have time to check before you move forward. But some simply stop and continue moving without checking if the road is clear. After all the rule says, stop at the STOP SIGN and they just did!

    Yes, sometimes, sequences and methodologies become so routine that we do not think about them. Not sure someone has driven to work without any effort of knowing where was going. Yet, you are making the right turns and going to the right place.

  25. fasmicro
    February 2, 2014

    >> If an accident is detected, the device inflates with helium in a fraction of a second.
    once it inflates it cant be used again, again at $500 thats a pretty expensive one time use helmet.

    You concern should be if the gas is dangerous to the driver and not if the product can be re-used. What if the gas poisons the driver? That is a big problem. For this to be a mass market product, the price must come down of course.

  26. goafrit2
    February 2, 2014

     the cost or installing a wires to power sensors and data dwarfs the cost of the sensor itself,

    You are correct – the most expensive element in the installation of gyros and XLs in the automotive market is the wiring. They have brought the PCI standard and other ones, but yet, they cannot seem to find a solution. Sensors can cost few bucks because it is electronics plus mechanical beams, but for wrires, there is nothing you can do unless you go wireless.

  27. goafrit2
    February 2, 2014

    integrated distance sensors that can sense and respond to changes in distance to the car ahead much faster that a driver can, it can reduce the chance of rear-end collision.   

    The problem is that they can make those changes even if you have a  piece of cardboard paper on the road which ordinarily you can driver over to avoid someone at the back hitting you. Relying on these technoogies is simply a waste of time; just use them as guide that must be under your control

     

  28. goafrit2
    February 2, 2014

    The same technology could be used to inflate an airbag resembling the Michelin man.

    That is a very good application, more than the bike helmet. Elderly people can wear them to reduce the impacts of fall. Largely, if the cost reduces, more applications will emerge.

  29. goafrit2
    February 2, 2014

    I understand your point, but many of the safety items in today's cars–including the airbags–use the same kind of electronics.

    But airbag is largely passive. The ones that are challenging are ones that can help wake you up and check if you are about to sleep. They can even try to keep you within lanes, etc. In that case, the airbag example is not a good example. We do not rely on airbags when we drive. It becomes useful when you lose control. But in these ones, they tend to be part of the driving –  I think that is the difference.

  30. goafrit2
    February 3, 2014

     Generally, the Tier1 suppliers are working 2-4 years ahead of what you see in a model year release.

    You are correct. I have done works with Bosch, TRW and Conti and it is a lot of efforts. The technologies for 2015 were ready last year. Now, the one for 2017 is under plan and development. You are correct. That is the reason why a cellphone can have a gyri for 60cent while the same for a car goes for $20

  31. samicksha
    February 4, 2014

    I understand your point fasmicro, infact i read similar kind of concern on some other site as well, but I believe manufacturer might have considered all the facts before launching, above this we have health care societies who will approve before product finally touches the ground.

    I am not sure but i guess we have similar kind facility available in car airbags but have not seen any such situation wherein gas found poisons.

  32. Netcrawl
    February 4, 2014

    @samicksha, the industry's demand will continue to grow, I think the technology will continue to improve and grow, we could expect some higher levels of sophistication in the few years, and we're seeing some new layers in this field.   

  33. samicksha
    February 5, 2014

    I agree you @Netcrawl, as the products reaches more consumers, we will see improvements, I guess as if now they only dispatch parcels to countries within the European Union through web shop.

  34. samicksha
    February 5, 2014

    I agree you @Netcrawl, as the products reaches more consumers, we will see improvements, I guess as if now they only dispatch parcels to countries within the European Union through web shop.

  35. goafrit2
    February 19, 2014

    Absolutely, when new products penetrate into markets, adoption improves. More people come to learn about them. That also makes other players to join which generally increases the competitive space. The exciting element is this dynamics reduces cost of the products and offers more choice. That is how capitalism works when governments do not fudge rules to change it.

  36. fasmicro
    March 3, 2014

    >> above this we have health care societies who will approve before product finally touches the ground.

    Yes but the level of innovation can actually be faster in what these companies can absorb. There is an inherent risk that the regulators cannot keep up with the level of new ideas coming to the market to properly regulate them.

  37. fasmicro
    March 3, 2014

    >> will continue to improve and grow, we could expect some higher levels of sophistication in the few years, and we're seeing some new layers in this field.   

    Unfortunately, we see “sophistication” as advacements in products. I wish as products mature, they become more simpler to use and not more sophisticated.

  38. fasmicro
    March 3, 2014

    >> I guess as if now they only dispatch parcels to countries within the European Union through web shop.

    Not yet, they are yet to harmonize all the rules. But they are expected to be ahead of the U.S. in giving the go-ahead. This will work better in EU countries best as they seem to be smaller compared to U.S. with its land-size.

  39. goafrit2
    March 22, 2014

    >>  Good product and approach, its sensors are powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries, which we need to worry in same manner as we for our phones. 

    You seem to think that our phone batteries are good. NO. We are managing them becuase there are not better alternatives. The best strategy will be to think beyond what is offered in the phone system and move beyond it. I think Tesla will have an edge from cars to phones if they can disrupt the whole business with their planned revolutionary battery design.

  40. samicksha
    March 24, 2014

    May be we still need to wait before product gets globally known and available.

  41. fasmicro
    May 1, 2014

    No – we can still draw inferences and extrapolate. That said, I think companies like Tesla could come up with some innovations that can be licensed to some of these consumer markets. I think we have a lot of opportunities from these car companies that are trying to go beyond the limits.

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