Monday, October 25

Special delivery: posties trial new electric unicycle


New one wheeled postal service is on a roll

Discover the new transportation devices being used by everyone from students to postal workers

A Whistl delivery man scoots along on an AirWheel unicycle (© Taylor Herring)

Taylor Herring

A Whistl delivery man scoots along on an AirWheel unicycle

Innovators across the world are intent on finding better solutions to the problem of personal transport: how can we get around more quickly and efficiently with minimal impact on the surrounding environment? From the odd-looking Segway (first introduced way back in 2001) to the Bough wooden bike, engineers want to help us find the best way of tootling around town. These inventions aren’t meant for long journeys but to improve the ‘last mile’ of a journey between the train and the office or the hotel and the beach.

One idea that’s gathering momentum centres around the concept of a single unicycle wheel. Assuming the rider can keep his or her balance, these mini-cycles offer a simple, inexpensive and effective way of travelling. For example, delivery company Whistl (previously known as TNT) has begun training its posties using modified AirWheels — these single-wheel pods are kind to the environment and can take drivers anywhere that pedestrians can go (very helpful when you’ve got a parcel to deliver).

These single-wheel devices are cheap to run and can be taken anywhere (© Taylor Herring)

Taylor Herring

These single-wheel devices are cheap to run and can be taken anywhere

Movement and music

The AirWheel Q3 model shown in these pictures has a 20 mile range and a top speed of 12mph, making it perfect for getting around tight urban environments quickly without having to break into a sweat. You can imagine the contraptions being stored in the back of delivery vans, so when the road runs out the driver can hop on an AirWheel to complete the job. Whistl has been busy testing them out in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, and says its drivers have “have had fun getting to grips with the gadget” while drawing one or two stares from onlookers.

AirWheels and variations on them have been around for some time — you can pick up a number of models from online retailers if you have several hundred pounds to spare. The most recent Q3 version of the product came out this summer, and while it takes some getting used to, once you’ve got the hang of it you can motor along at a fair old pelt. The device uses a rechargeable battery and there are even models that come with built-in music speakers.

You can pick up your own AirWheel at prices starting at a little over £500 (© AirWheel)

AirWheel

You can pick up your own AirWheel at prices starting at a little over £500

A history of innovation

There are plenty of other single-wheel concepts out there. The OneWheel skateboard, which we’ve previously covered, uses high-tech balancing technology (the same found in modern-day smartphones) to keep you balanced while you scoot along. Another product we’ve looked at in the past is the RYNO Micro-cycle, which takes the single wheel concept and builds an entire electric motorbike around it. Steering is more difficult, because the same wheel controls both direction and power, but after a few minutes of practice you’ll find you can start to get the hang of this mode of movement.

It’s not a new idea either — as far back as 1869 Richard Hemming patented a unicycle design where the rider sat in the middle of one huge wheel to roll along the road. Using an intricate system of pulleys Hemming claimed that speeds of up to 25mph could be reached with very little effort, but the idea never made it to the mass production stage. Today’s unicycle designs are much more lightweight and require no exertion at all.

The OneWheel invention takes the same approach to skateboards (© OneWheel)

OneWheel

The OneWheel invention takes the same approach to skateboards

The SoloWheel alternative

Ploughing the same furrow as the AirWheel is the SoloWheel, which weighs in at 11kg (24lbs) and claims to be “the most compact motor vehicle in the world”. It uses an electric battery and a patented gryo-stabilised wheel to help you glide through the early evening commuter crush. It offers a top speed of 10mph and will set you back €1,999 (that’s around £1,570). That makes it substantially more expensive than the AirWheel, which starts at £509.99.

The benefits of these cut-down unicycles are immediately apparent. You can charge them at the office in the day and then ride them home at night; you can throw them in the back of a car or even strap them to a moped; they don’t cost anything to run except for the price of the electricity used to charge them up. There are problems to work on as well though — all of these models require flat and smooth ground to work properly, so you’re not going to be able to hike up mountains with them, and they still have a limited range.

SoloWheel is another European company selling these compact unicycles (© SoloWheel)

SoloWheel

SoloWheel is another European company selling these compact unicycles

Gliding through urban spaces

New variations on the theme continue to appear on Kickstarter and elsewhere. The Urban Glider, for example, had raised more than $50,000 on the crowdfunding site before it was pulled due to a patent claim — by the aforementioned SoloWheel — which means the inventors have had to rethink their approach. The team behind Urban Glider is still hoping to launch in New York before the end of the year without infringing on any patents held by SoloWheel, and you can pre-order a Glider for $999 (roughly £610).

The Urban Glider promises a 21 mile range, a top speed of 13mph and up to two hours of use from a single charge (depending on your speed). Weighing 11kg or 24lbs and with four colours to choose from, the device also has a built-in stabilisation system that makes hundreds of calculations every second to make sure you’re as well balanced as possible. You can even perform some small stunts on the Urban Glider, as its makers demonstrate on the website.

The Urban Glider team hopes to launch its product by the end of the year (© Urban Glider)

Urban Glider

The Urban Glider team hopes to launch its product by the end of the year

Revolutionising personal transportation

The common threads running through all of these innovations are portability, efficiency, ease-of-use and eco-friendliness. You could take a bicycle for the same journey, but these unicycles require no pedalling and can be stored under train seats and even on your back; you could walk, but you’re going to get to your destination much faster and much fresher if you take an AirWheel or a SoloWheel along for the ride.

“The single wheel electric unit quite literally revolutionises the personal transportation market,” say the manufacturers of the AirWheel. “The self-balancing unicycle transportation device is the cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to using a car for any short distance journeys.” If you don’t mind a few strange looks, you can keep your balance, and you have the money to afford one, a single-wheel device could be the best way for you to get from A to B.