Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

A Smart Bicycle Helmet Designed By Millennials

Posted by Tom Foremski - September 2, 2014

SmartHelmet

Intel Intern Aniket Borkar modeling the Smart Helmet

Students at Oregon State University and Intel interns collaborated 0n a smart helmet with life-saving features.

By Intel Free Press

For the past half year, a group of five undergraduate students from Oregon State University has been working with interns at Intel to create a smart safety helmet for cyclists. In a perfect world, the primary function of the helmet -- to detect a crash and communicate to emergency contacts -- would never be used.

The job of today's bicycle helmets is to provide protection to the head in a crash. The group of interns wants to extend this functionality, especially when used with smaller children, as well as provide tests to determine if a rider involved in a crash may have suffered a concussion and requires medical attention.

Viewed as a "smart helmet," which is connected to a smartphone, the prototype uses sensors (e.g., accelerometers) to detect a crash and communication hardware to automatically dial a predefined emergency contact. Built into the helmet are above-the-ear speakers, a microphone, an LED headlamp and a 3.7V, 2600mAh lithium-ion battery. The team also created a custom logic board that incorporates Intel Edison along with Bluetooth, magnetometer, gyroscope and two accelerometers.

A smartphone app, developed in Java parallel with the hardware, serves as the companion to the smart helmet's functions and features. The app enables a user's smartphone to record ride distance, speed and the path. It currently runs on Android but can easily be ported to other platforms.

Abhay Dharmadhikari, a technologist and architect in the Device Development Group for Intel, who has been at the company for over 17 years, mentored the interns working on the smart helmet. Dharmadhikari has a personal interest in the helmet project, as he has two children, ages 8 and 12, who are cyclists. Children are seldom good communicators and are often embarrassed to talk about problems or don't give the full picture, said Dharmadhikari.

The helmet knows all...and who to call

"If my kids get into a crash, we will never know what happened. Did they hit their heads? Did they get really injured? Because when they come back [after biking] they just say 'I got hurt,' so we aren't really sure how bad it was," said Dharmadhikari. "Could we build something that would help us understand; [and] if a crash happens, the helmet can act like a black box?"

The intern team behind the helmet likened it to the automobile assistance program OnStar, but for cyclists.

In the event of a crash, the smartphone application initiates communication with the bike rider through the helmet speakers and microphone to ask if he needs help.

If he says "yes" or does not respond, the app automatically will call and/or text the emergency contact (which can be 911) with location information. The rider can also be asked several medical questions to assess if he's suffered a concussion or other injury, such as asking the rider to read the current time on an analog clock displayed on the companion app.

The helmet also stores crash data that can be analyzed after the fact to better understand the incident, like a "black box" for bicyclists. The helmet will store sensor data, which is helpful in telling doctors which part of the head sustained the impact. T

The companion app can also connect to the cloud to upload and pool ride and crash data, so that the crowd-sourced data can be used to better understand head injuries as well as identifying dangerous intersections.

Because the interns developing the prototype wanted to extend the functionality to something useful beyond emergency situations, the microphone and speakers can be used for hands-free calling as well as streaming music. Because the speakers do not cover the ears, the bicycle rider can still hear the surrounding environment.

The helmet as a platform...

"We think of the helmet as a platform and there are many things we can do with it. We focused on the present features from a product perspective," said Dharmadhikari, adding that haptic feedback could be a future feature.

The smart helmet project is part of an extensive internship program that Intel has with university graduate and undergraduate students. The Intel Collaborators program is on its third year employing undergraduate and graduate students and Ph.D. candidates from around the country to participate in high-visibility, cross-functional mentored programs.

Contrary to traditional Intel intern programs, which are typically funded by individual business units at Intel, the Collaborators program receives support and funding from Intel Human Resources.

"We believe in this next generation of students and mentoring them and helping them become better engineers; that is our motivation," said Dharmadhikari. "I believe in working with the students where they really have energy and challenge the energy with the right problems and tools."

The smart helmet project started in December 2013 with the five selected interns initially devoting their free time to the project. Once school had completed, four of the five worked full time as official Intel interns. Three students are studying computer and electrical engineering and one is studying computer science.

Saving lives is an adrenaline rush...

Cam Tu Vo is a junior at Oregon State University studying computer science, and at her internship at Intel she works in web development. Vo extracted crash data from databases and visually represented it in a way that was useful to users or researchers.

"The tasks were fairly straightforward in the beginning, but it gradually became interesting after more feedback. My manager really focused on the user interface and meaningful information," Vo said. "From those expectations, I had the opportunity to work with graphics and 3-D model manipulation of our helmet."

The intern team finally got the chance to show off their smart helmet at an Intel Collaborators showcase.

"A camera man told us about a close friend's death. He said our smart helmet would have contacted emergency services after the bike accident and could have saved his friend's life," Vo said.

"The man expressed true appreciation, which gave me the sense that I am a part of something that can positively impact people's lives. It was such an adrenaline rush for me."

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