The year: 2001. The product: Dean Kamen’s Segway® Personal Transporter. I was instantly intrigued, and to this day I still do a double-take, then gawk, when I see someone cruising around on their Segway. I’m secretly envious of anyone who gets to ride one, so much so that riding, if not outright owning one, is on my bucket list. To me, the Segway is the ultimate in personal A to B transportation. No gas. No oil. Just a quick battery charge and you’re on your way. Run your errands. Go out to lunch. Park it in your cubicle. What could be better? Well, it turns out that Honda’s engineers have developed an equally impressive aid to personal mobility. Enter the U3-X Personal Mobility Prototype.
Both the Segway and U3-X are great examples of mechatronic engineering. Despite their relatively small size when compared with other self-propelled transportation options (think motorcycle or automobile), neither is a simple machine. Both rely on complex interactions between hardware and software to safely move passengers from one point to another. Like the Segway, the U3-X is self-balancing – which is a surreal sight when you see either machine free-standing. The Segway looks a little like a glorified hand truck, with two wheels separated by a platform and a tall vertical handle. To make the Segway move, passengers stand on the platform, grasp the handle, and lean in any direction. The U3-X, on the other hand, balances on a single wheel-within-a-wheel that enables forward, backward, lateral, and diagonal motion. Picture a sort-of high-tech unicycle without pedals. Passengers simply sit on the foldable seat, rest their feet on the retractable foot pegs, and lean slightly in the direction they want to move.
So what makes either machine tick? At a high level, each is a tightly integrated combination of several different technologies including motors, batteries, control algorithms, electronics, sensors, and actuators. Precisely the type of components you find in any self-respecting mechatronic system. Common components integrated in unique ways to solve real problems – the classic, and sometimes rare, product realm where form and function meet genuine usability. Segway and Honda engineers simply needed to figure out how to get all of the components to play nicely together – the engineering challenge of mechatronic system design. And as systems get more complex, the challenge of EDA software vendors to provide design tools that accurately model and analyze often disparate technology interactions. A perfect segue (sorry…couldn’t resist) to today’s sponsor…SystemVision, Mentor Graphics’ solution for mechatronics system design and analysis.
The Segway and U3-X are clearly focused on different segments of the personal transport market. If you need to get from one building to another, or one part of town to another, the Segway is clearly the winner. It’s even suitable for travelling short distances, say from your desk to the printer in Room 213, provided your office hallways and doorways are wide enough. But it is a bit bulky for close quarters. The U3-X, on the other hand, is designed for close quarters maneuverability – precisely the type of environments you find in an office or crowded public setting. The more I think about it, the more it seems these two machines really compliment one another. Use the Segway for Point A to Point B long distance travel with the U3-X carefully stowed either in a backpack or one of several commercially available Segway storage options. Once you get to where you’re going, park the Segway (in free-standing mode, of course), then unpack the U3-X and hop on for close-quarters, short distance mobility at more liesurely speeds. Perfect. Add another must-ride item to be bucket list. Now someone needs to convince Honda to move the U3-X from its concept / prototype phase to full production.