More and more, cities spanning the globe are finding themselves embracing new technologies that make traversing the urban landscape safer, more sustainable, and more welcoming to all forms of mobility. Working within the realms of transportation and infrastructure as well as in public health and safety, here’s the latest updates on how four URBAN-X alumni are kicking off the new year by making getting around town — be it by car, bicycle, scooter, foot or other means — endlessly more enjoyable, reliable and efficient.
PARK & DIAMOND
Harnessing a direct-to-consumer sales model and mission-driven messaging, Brooklyn-based Cohort 04 startup Park & Diamond breathes new life into an object that’s seen woefully little change over the years: the bicycle helmet. Lightweight, ultra-portable, and stylish, Park & Diamond’s baseball cap-esque helmet is a much-needed reimagining of bulky foam-based models. And based on the response to Park & Diamond’s ongoing Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, cyclists everywhere, including those who might otherwise wince at the notion of donning protective headgear, are very much here for it.
As of November 2018, Park & Diamond’s signature helmet, which is just as effective at safeguarding against head injuries as traditional helmets, was 2,699 percent funded with about 18,000 units sold — and the pre-orders continue to roll in. (Shipping kicks off in May.) Jordan Klein, who co-founded the company over three years ago with fellow former SpaceX engineer David Hall with the goal to help decrease the number of traumatic head injuries caused by cycling-related accidents, attributes their success in part to a willingness to promote safety awareness and encourage behavioral change. (Hall’s sister spent four months in a coma after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while biking through the intersection of Park and Diamond in North Philadelphia.)
“We had such a strong passion for solving the problem that we were able to create the infrastructure as a business that allowed this product to exist and, at the same time, had the technical competency to build the product itself,” says Klein.
“Our mission is about protecting people as they get to where they’re going … and that’s changed,” Klein explains. “Originally for us, that would have been designing a safer car. But as we’ve seen transportation in cities shift specifically away from the automobile, there’s a huge need for safety products for the micro-mobility and alternative transportation landscape. And that’s the gap we really want to fill.”
Roadways in numerous communities will soon be — and already are — smoother, cleaner, and less pothole-riddled thanks to smartphone-driven road assessment technology developed by Cohort 03 startup RoadBotics.
Based in Pittsburgh where their AI technology was developed at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, RoadBotics — led by CEO Mark DeSantis — has a busy year ahead. In the coming months, the technology will be used to assess all 2,600 miles of Detroit’s roadways to help public works officials identify and remedy problem areas. (And there are many.) With support from Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s PlanetM initiative, the company will also pilot its new AI Maintenance (AIM) tool to help the city detect unsealed cracks and take preventative measures. And although the road to economic recovery has been a bumpy one, Motor City now finds itself on the “cutting edge” of infrastructure planning and maintenance as RoadBotics Director of Account Management Ryan Gayman points out.
Among the cities to employ RoadBotics’ machine learning technology in 2018 were Montgomery, Alabama; South Bend, Indiana, and Savannah, Georgia, where the historic port town — with an assist from Chief Infrastructure and Development Officer Heath Lloyd — will use data gleaned from road assessments to develop a 5-year maintenance plan for all 700 miles of its wildly complex road network. RoadBotics is continuing to expand its presence in Australia and, in 2019, will branch out into new markets via pilot programs in France, India, and the United Kingdom.
Given the Sisyphean nature of addressing aging infrastructure, RoadBotics enables customers to better prioritize what needs to be fixed and maintained so road projects are tackled in an efficient, cost-effective manner with an emphasis on long-term care. “It’s exciting that we can go into any engineering firm or company — whether that’s a small entrepreneurial venture or a multi-billion dollar firm responsible for supporting a city’s maintenance and infrastructure — anywhere around the world and they immediately understand,” says Gayman.
As Cohort 01 startup Numina makes abundantly clear, monitoring and analyzing traffic flows in cities shouldn’t be limited just to the movement of cars. In a city that’s truly willing to adapt to those living in it, the collection of real-time traffic data needs to be a multimodal affair where all street-level movement — be it from bicyclists, wheelchair users, pedestrians, motorists, and others — is equally observed and accounted for.
Numina’s light pole-mounted sensor system provides city planners and other stakeholders with a more comprehensive view of who is moving through city streets, how and when they are doing it and by what means. (Privacy, of course, is also accounted for in all of this.) This data, in the words of Numina CEO and co-founder Tara Pham, helps empower cities to become more “responsive, connected, efficient, and equitable.”
To date, Numina has worked with cities including St. Louis, Las Vegas and Jacksonville — a sprawling city with a high number of annual pedestrian deaths — to deploy its sensor technology. More recently, Numina launched its second-generation sensor system in downtown Brooklyn with plans to expand to a dozen more cities throughout the first quarter of 2019. Numina’s sensor technology will also be deployed for the first time in Europe in the bustling Dutch city of Nijmegen.
Numina will soon launch its API product, anticipated to be deployed in 30 communities by the end of the year. “By providing the API for streets, Numina is building the backbone for urban automation — measuring how places behave and evolve,” says Pham. “In real-time applications, Numina can trigger city services where needed, when needed. For example, we’re piloting an application measuring the buildup of trash bags on the sidewalk and automatically notifying trash hauling when to come. Numina enables city services on demand.”
There’s no argument that the most vital feature of autonomous vehicles are the all-seeing “eyes” in the form of sensors.. And the development of this crucial hardware — hardware that promises to have potential well beyond the automotive space — is where Cohort 03 startup Lunewave comes in.
In August 2018, Lunewave completed a $5 million seed funding round with strategic investors including BMW i Ventures and Baidu Ventures. The following month, the company delivered its first beta prototype while also completing lab and vehicle testing for BMW’s Startup Garage program. “The metrics and target KPIs actually exceeded our expectations across weather, distance, field of view and angular resolution,” CEO and co-founder John Xin says of the recent beta-testing triumphs.
Lunewave puts a cost-effective and precision-driven spin on the Luneburg antenna — a roughly 70-year-old technology — through 3D printing. As Xin explains, it was his brother and Lunewave co-founder, Hao Xin, who set out to achieve the seemingly unachievable. “The beauty from his perspective, as an engineer, was leveraging 3D printing to fabricate an antenna that is impossible to do through the traditional manufacturing process,” he explains.
While we may not see self-driving vehicles on city streets this year or next, there is a massive opportunity to reduce the number of injuries and deaths that occur from distracted driving, and Lunewave’s technology can help realize this future. “I don’t think that everything is going to be 100 percent bulletproof,” Xin adds, “but I do think that having self-driving cars and improved technology should significantly drive down the accident rate.”