Motor Doping

by Bryan Bergeron, Editor
September 2010

If you’re into competitive cycling, you know that the buzz for the past few months has been around so-called motor doping – the use of hidden motors to propel racers effortlessly across the finish line. Whether or not the International Cycling Union uncovers proof of wrongdoing by international racers, the story brings to the forefront the state of the art in battery-powered motors.

According to some claims, the bicycles involved in motor doping had a motor connected to the bottom bracket, and the motor body and batteries fit within the tubes of the frame. Ignore, for the moment, how you’d charge the batteries or mount the motor within a bike tube so that it would be functional, as well as serviceable. The implications for compact or stealth robotics are intriguing.

Given tiny, powerful motors and matching batteries, think of the applications where visible assistance is unwanted or at least not a plus – think wheelchairs and other assistive devices. Then, there’s the assistive exoskeletons that could help a soldier carry large loads in the field or help an elderly person manage a set of stairs while carrying a bag of groceries.

An issue is, of course, cost. And that’s the beauty of the current situation in cycling, assuming the reports are correct. If the technology is proven on the hills and flats of Europe, it’s good enough for cyclists from Amsterdam to San Francisco. Assuming millions of bicycles will be sold with built-in electric assist motors, the price for the technology will be affordable by definition. What a robotics experimenter’s dream to be able to walk into a bike shop and pick up a controller, motor, and batteries for a project!

I’m certain the technology exists. I’ve seen super compact motors and matching batteries in prototype assistive devices from Japanese robotics shops. However, the demonstrations never last for more than perhaps 30 seconds. If you want to see the state of the art only two years ago, check out “Honda Walking Assist Device” on YouTube. Not something that I’d want to be seen wearing while shopping or just walking around the block. Now, imagine the same device with less obvious motorsand batteries. Given the choice between a wheelchair and a not-too-obvious robotic walking assistant, I’d probably go with the assistant.

Of course, raw motor power is necessary but insufficient to make prototypes such as the Honda possible. It’s the integration of smart sensor technology with motor control that essentially amplifies the wearer’s motor functions. It’s one thing to simply press a button to kick a bicycle into motor drive and another to have a device sense when you’re applying more pressure to a surface or that the electrical activity in a muscle is changing.

So, again, I’m hoping that the motor doping stories are true, because I want to get my hands on a set of motors and batteries. Then, all we need is a movement akin to either the open source Arduino in microprocessors and shields, or the closed Apple model with thousands of Apps, but focused on the human-robot interface.

Whether such a movement originates from a publisher, academic institution, company, or individual, it’ll be a bright day for robotics. And, of course, if you happen to be that individual, then get to it. Given the wave of baby boomers that will be hitting their 70s in the next decade, there will be more than enough demand for your technology to keep you profitably occupied. SV

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