For most Davis residents, riding a bike seems as easy as walking or sleeping. Turns out, it’s an action so complex that the National Science Foundation will grant a UC Davis team two years and $300,000 to study it.
Professors Mont Hubbard and Ron Hess of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department are researching how humans control bicycles. They hope to discover the control law behind the visual and motion cues required to maneuver the device [CQ].
“We’re trying to understand how humans ride bicycles in a precise, mathematical context,” Hubbard said, who leads the UC Davis Sports Biomechanics Laboratory. “Ultimately, it would be nice to understand how a bicycle can be easily ridden.”
Hubbard explained that because riding a bicycle demands so many of the body’s senses, it is a difficult process to decipher and comprehend. The visual cues, muscle movements and sense of balance bicyclists must possess are more demanding than those needed to drive a car or, as Hess argued, those used to fly an airplane.
“When a human rides a bike, they are using all sensory information available to control something,” he said. This includes vestibular cues, which are located in the inner ear and provide a sense of leaning.
Vestibular cues play a unique role in bicycle riding, as they allow skilled riders to control their bicycle without the use of their hands. These cues are not utilized in the control of most other devices.
“Such a strategy would be impossible in an aircraft or automobile,” said the study authors in a written overview of the project.
Many people see bicycle riding as an inherent action, likely because of the early age at which most learn the skill. However, as Hess and Hubbard argue, the many sensory demands bike riding calls for make it unique.
Brendan Repicky, a sophomore political science and history double major, acknowledged the complexity of bicycle riding.
“It really is an instinctive action,” he said. “I stopped riding my bike for a few years in high school, and when I got to Davis I kind of had to re-learn the balance trick of it. You need to really use your center of gravity.” Hubbard and Hess, along with a group of both graduate and undergraduate UC Davis students, will study human bicycle riders and then attempt to validate their findings by building a controllable robot bicycle.
Bicycles with built in sensors will record the movements of the riders and bikes together. The robot bicycle will remove the human from the process and test whether it is possible for a machine to mirror the techniques employed by humans. Using these samples, researchers hope to determine the mathematical law behind the process.
Hubbard envisions the study’s findings bringing more precision to bike manufacturing. Hess also noted that the study is part of a larger attempt to understand the way humans control dynamic machines, with bicycles serving as an inexpensive and effective way to measure data.
MEGAN MURPHY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.