The latest addition to the Internet of Things: hand-built folding bikes

Two-wheeling down the information superhighway
Two-wheeling down the information superhighway
Image: Brompton
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Since its founding 40 years ago, Brompton has built its famous folding bicycles by hand in London—even as production has risen to 50,000 per year. But now it wants to modernize its products. One idea: connect the two-wheelers to the so-called Internet of Things. That would turn Brompton bikes into environmental sensors, crash-detection devices, or even home-alarm systems.

Last December, the bicycle maker held a hack day in east London with Evrythng, a company that develops software for sensors. The task involved putting a pack of sensors in a bicycle’s saddle-bag, then developing applications for the resulting data.

Some application ideas included tracking air quality and other environmental information, so riders could gauge pollution on a route; an app that would send an emergency message if it detected a sudden impact to the bike; and a program that would automatically turn on a house’s lights and phone the owner if unwanted motion was detected. Here’s a video of those prototypes at work:

The effort is part of a plan to sell new products to Brompton’s hip, tech-savvy, customer base, said Ross Hawkins, the company’s global brand manager. Brompton is also working on a battery-powered bike. “The next stage is, what can we do on the bike that could add on technology to make it more useful,” Hawkins said. On the factory floor, Brompton has started using Rasperry Pi mini-computers to track parts.

The company, founded in 1975, was pottering along under founder Andrew Ritchie, who invented a way for the bikes to fold down to a third of their full size. It made about 20,000 bicycles a year in 2008, generating about £10 million in revenue when current chief executive William Butler-Adams led a management buyout. Today the company makes 50,000 bikes a year and generates £30 million in sales. Some 80% of its bicycles are exported to 44 countries, Hawkins said.

Brompton’s Internet of Things projects are still just prototypes. Hawkins says the company will decide whether to commercialize any of the ideas sometime this year. “It’s a totally different world from what we’re used to… but this is very much proving to the Brompton team that it’s possible,” he said.