The Quest to Build the World's Fastest Bike

Eta Speedbike rendering Courtesy Aero Velo

For the past eight years, Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert have dedicated themselves primarily to engineering human-powered flying vehicles. Now the Canadian founders of AeroVelo are taking their work to ground level by designing a bicycle that could set a new world record for human-powered vehicles, which is currently 133.8 kilometers per hour (83.1 mph). Robertson and Reichert plan to show off their Eta bike—the name is inspired by the Greek letter that in engineering circles stands for efficiency—at the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nev., in September.

From the outside, the Eta resembles a more streamlined version of Clark Kent’s spaceship in Smallville but with wheels. The frame is enveloped in an oval-shaped pod made of carbon fiber, a lightweight but durable material that’s been used by aircraft manufacturers. The inner frame, which is also fashioned from carbon fiber composite, bears some resemblance to a recumbent bike. The top of the rear wheel attaches to the frame, and the frame then slopes down to grab the front wheel at its center. From there the frame declines from the center of the wheel toward the rear wheel to create a close-to-the-ground seat for the rider.

Eta Speedbike configuration rendering
Courtesy Aero Velo
The combination of aerodynamic shell and minimalist frame helps deliver the speed Robertson and Reichert are after. The shape gives the bike one-10th the drag of the most streamlined cars, according to the duo. The wheels are roughly 26 inches, which is comparable to the size on bikes used at events such as the Olympics but with smaller spokes to reduce air resistance. “Normally on a bike you have the rider’s body through the air contributing the most to drag and the wheels are almost negligible, but for us the spinning wheels and enclosure take up about 15 percent of drag, so we are working to reduce that as much as possible,” Robertson says. The pair is also working to pare down the Eta’s weight to just 45 lbs.

Because the bike is enclosed in a shell, the driver will steer Eta using a camera display. In the past, Robertson and Reichert built bikes with windshields but decided to take a different route for this project. “We were never able to get good at making windshields,” Robertson says. “The visibility was terrible.”

Eta Speedbike internal rendering
Courtesy Aero Velo
Eta’s creators are funding their work through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, with the goal of reaching 30,000 Canadian dollars ($28,208) by Wednesday, July 9.

The two men met as undergraduates at the University of Toronto in the mid-2000s, where Robertson earned a master’s in aerospace engineering and Reichert a Ph.D. in the same subject. The two became interested in human-powered engineering when they worked on a project involving flapping-wing flight as undergraduates.

The group has worked on a tight summer deadline before. In 2010, the Canadian pair designed a contraption they christened Snowbird that became the first successful human-powered, flapping-wing aircraft in the world. Although others have built so-called ornithopters, theirs was the first to fly solely powered by a human. In 2013, Robertson and Reichert introduced a human-powered helicopter. The helicopter was airborne for only 64 seconds and reached an altitude of 3.3 meters (around 11 feet), but that was still better than three precursors built by other inventors. Such exploits attracted the attention of the producers of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, a show that debunks or proves myths and rumors using scientific methods. Robertson and Reichert will appear in a Mythbuster episode scheduled to air this summer.

Photograph by CKMMphotographic.com
Robertson and Reichert work over the summer mainly so students can assist with the projects and get hands-on engineering experience they might not get in a classroom setting. “It gave me the idea to come up with something and see how it went into something [on a] larger scale,” says Thomas Ulph, who is enrolled in the aerospace engineering program at the University of Toronto and is working on the Eta bicycle project this summer. “That can’t happen in the classroom because of timelines.”

Even though the Eta bike is designed to reach highway speeds, its compact design would pose safety risks for a rider sharing the road with SUVs and trucks. But Robertson and Reichert never had the intention of creating a commercially viable vehicle. “Our goal is to inspire the public and really promote a vision of sustainability and efficient design by taking on these incredibly mind-blowing projects,” Robertson says. He added that the allure of building human-powered vehicles, as opposed to creating ones outfitted with powerful engines, is that humans complicate a project by putting a constraint on the design. “You can’t double the power of a human,” Robertson says. “When you fix the power source, that’s not something that we in today’s tech world are used to doing, so that becomes a much more difficult problem.”

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