Meet Eta, possibly the world’s fastest human-powered bike

A photo of the team's previous research bike, Bluenose, that achieved 125 km/h last year at Battle Mountain (Photo Credit Tom Amick).

Meet Eta, the superbike of the future

Engineers hope their design will become the world's fastest human-powered bike

Interview by Alex Chronopoulos

Photos courtesy of Cameron Robertson of AeroVelo

What's cooler than a bike? Well, a "superbike," of course! More specifically, one that will be able to travel at highway speeds and break the human-powered speed record at 134 km/h. That's what AeroVelo's chief structuralist engineer, Cameron Robertson and chief aerodynamicist, Todd Reichert aim to do with their new project, Eta.

The aim is to break the record this fall at the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada. The current record stands at 133.8 km/h. The team’s speedbike, Eta, is projected to hit speeds of 145 km/hr.

dandyhorse sat down with Robertson to discuss Eta, the science behind cycling and his personal biking habits. Here's what he had to say:

Why did you co-found AeroVelo? How did you meet co-founder Todd Reichert? And we did your decide to initiate this project together?

Todd and I met in 2006, while we were students at the University of Toronto. We started a project to build the Snowbird Human-Powered Ornithopter, which in 2010 became the first piloted flapping-wing aircraft in history to sustain flight. In 2012, we saw the American Helicopter Society’s Sikorsky Prize for the flight of a human-powered helicopter (it looks like a flying bike), and decided to start a team to pursue that 33-year-old challenge. That team became AeroVelo. Our projects centre around human power: with this as our only limit, we can take lightweight efficient vehicle design to the extreme, on land or in the air.

We are designing for the future – as sustainable transportation becomes more crucial, the innovations and creativity in our projects become more relevant. We want to inspire the public to do more with less and educate youth to prioritize creative design for a changing world.

In 2010, Robertson and Reichert became the first team in history to successfully build and fly human-powered ornithopter (flapping wing aircraft), named Snowbird. Photo from CKMMPhotographic

Why the name Eta?

Eta is the Greek letter that looks like a lowercase n, and in science and engineering is the symbol for efficiency. That encapsulates the ideal behind this bike: the ultimate pursuit of efficiency. It guides everything we do.

Shell Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) pressure distribution rendering. The colours represent the Pressure Coefficient; the blues and greens denote minimal pressure, while the yellows and reds show points of high pressure. 

How long has Eta been in the works?

We started planning for Eta in September 2013, with preliminary design starting in January 2014 and the student intern team coming onboard in May 2014. That being said, we’ve been helping the University of Toronto Human-Powered vehicle team build bikes for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Human-Powered Vehicle Challenge for the past five years. The goal of this competition is to develop a better, more utilitarian and higher-speed bike design that could really displace cars for more uses.

What effect will the success of Eta have on the biking community in Toronto and in Canada?

We hope to spur interest in bikes and speedbikes as a bigger part of the future transportation framework, and inspire better investment in biking infrastructure in Toronto. We also want to inspire engineers, designers, youth, and the public everywhere to seek more sustainable solutions and aim to do more with less. A bike capable of 145 km/h on level ground is a disruptive technology!

Shell CFD shear distribution rendering. The shear stress (pressure), measured in Pascals (Pa) is denoted as minimal by the blue and green colouring, and increases with the yellows and reds.

Further, what effect do these types of innovative ventures have on the international cycling community?

The global mindset in cycling and bike infrastructure is typically more forward-thinking than Toronto. A practical speedbike would be nearly ready to integrate with the bike highways and separated bike infrastructure we see now in Europe and South America mostly; and also for [the bike highways] in the future .

Most cyclists take for granted or don’t consider the science and technicalities that exist in their bikes. How intimate is the relationship between science and cycling?

For a typical bike there is lots of technology involved, designing bikes that handle better, are more comfortable, and more durable. However, for a typical bike the rider’s aerodynamic drag absorbs 90 per cent or the total power, with rolling resistance making up the other 10 per cent. There’s only so much a bike designer can do about that. For our bikes it’s all about the engineering. With good design we hugely reduce the aerodynamic drag, improve the tires’ rolling resistance, improve the efficiency of the drivetrain, and make an advanced composite structure for good stability at high speeds. These all come together to make a bike 30x more efficient than a standard road bike, and 100x more efficient than the average car. Furthermore, we spend a lot of time optimizing the “human engine”, getting more power out of the rider through better ergonomics and specialized training regimens.

Shell CFD streamlines. The streamlines show the curves that are tangent to the velocity of the air; they show the direction the air will travel across Eta. 

What is the ultimate goal of Eta and AeroVelo?

We want to show the world that nothing is impossible, and that with the right priorities and better engineering design we can make better solutions for a healthier future. This has been the goal of the Snowbird, Atlas, and it’s the same with Eta. We want to seek out challenging endeavors, and by tackling them in a creative and innovative manner, inspire the public and youth to apply our mindset to their everyday lives and become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). One day, we hope the technologies we spearhead in each of our vehicles can help transportation solutions like aircraft and cars get dramatically better and become more sustainable.

In laypersons terms, how will Eta work? How do you get a bike to travel at such high speeds?

Eta is driven like a standard bicycle; it has handlebars, pedals, and a few gears to shift through. We seek to improve every area of the design, but the biggest difference is in the aerodynamics. The aerodynamic drag of Eta is 30 times less than a normal bike and rider, and this is how we can go 3 times faster than the fastest bike. The outer shell is designed with advanced aerodynamic analysis, and by making almost no concessions (we use a camera vision system to steer because a windshield messes up the aerodynamic design) we can pursue the perfect shape.

Where does funding for these projects come from?

We have a range of supporters, from the public via our Kickstarter campaigns and individual donors, corporate sponsors who help with funding and material/component/services donations, the University of Toronto that helps with scholarships for some of the students. Our team is run like a non-profit, we don’t make or sell a product or have commercial work, we just want to do the best we can to inspire using incredible engineering.

Robertson with his bike, posing in front of Bluenose. 

What is your personal relationship with biking?

I enjoy riding recreationally. I bike to our team workspace every day I can, and I bike wherever I can in the city. It’s the fastest way to get around. I have a steel-brazed single-speed that I put together at Bike Pirates, it’s as simple as I can make it and ultra-light. It’s black, red and white -- my favorite colour combination.

Stay tuned to AeroVelo news on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and sign up for their newsletter, as they prepare for the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in September.

Related on the dandyBLOG:

dandyMECHANICS: Hubs

dandyMECHANICS: Tires

dandyMECHANICS: The saddle

dandyMECHANICS: Cranks

Bike Plans in Other Cities: Copenhagen, Washington DC and London UK

Bike Plans in Other Cities: Amsterdam, Calgary and Chicago

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