While living in Singapore after the financial crash, keen cyclist Philip McAleese experienced a number of near-misses with cars that left him feeling vulnerable every time he rode his bike.
His standard-issue bike light couldn't match the luminosity from the cars, meaning that drivers could see one another on the road, but the brightness of their headlamps was drowning out the relatively dim glow from cyclists.
McAleese spotted an opportunity – a bicycle light that was as bright as it needed to be to compete with cars, but was also designed to dim when its artificial light source wasn’t necessary. In 2013, See.Sense was born.
Philip McAleese along with his partner Irene McAleese gave up their corporate jobs and moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in order to turn the idea into a viable business venture. Four successful Kickstarter campaigns later – and having raised £700,000 in equity crowdfunding on Crowdcube – it was clear that the now 15-strong company had a product people wanted to buy.
Techworld first spoke to the firm in 2016, just after it was awarded first prize in a BT and Cabinet Office smart cities competition. At the time, See.Sense had developed just the one product, ICON, a smart bike light that offered improved visibility as well as sensors that collected traffic data.
The business has gone from strength to strength since, with four different bike lights, including ICON2 – a revamped version of the original – a smart tracking device called AIR, as well as a number of branded accessories.
Building a community
A See.Sense device, says the company, is able to collect and transmit data at a rate that is more accurate – and frequent – than that of a smartphone. Everything from information about poor road surfaces, collisions, popular routes, speed and dwell times, to patterns of breaking and swerving that affect cyclist safety, can be recorded.
In cities where there are large numbers of See.Sense users, city officials can then request this aggregated, depersonalised data under license and use it to improve the everyday journeys of cyclists.
“We’re not interested in individual journeys,” Irene McAleese tells Techworld over the phone. “We’re looking at the overall patterns.”
If a city wants to track the cyclists’ journeys but hasn’t experienced a large uptake in the product, it has the option to partner with See.Sense to get a project underway.
A city will bulk-buy several hundred lights from See.Sense, along with the data licence and the necessary dashboards to view the data. Cities then make the lights available at subsidised price – using surveys to identify specific groups the city would like to target. In cities where sufficient data already exists from sale of their retail products, a 'data-as-a-service' option is available too, that saves cost of hardware deployment.
“What we’ve found in most cities is that [these programmes] are completely oversubscribed,” McAleese says. “We had around 1,000 people apply in Manchester but the council only had 200 lights.”
Typically, cities have struggled to gain data from cyclists as there’s been no easy or obvious way to collect the information en masse.
“This is where we’ve really captured the imagination of cities,” she says. To date, See.Sense has partnered with Manchester, Dublin, and Antwerp, and will soon launch projects in Oxfordshire, Northeast Lincolnshire and Aveiro in Portugal.
The future of connected bike lights
Transmitting such large volumes of data doesn’t come without its challenges. In the last 12 months, See.Sense has worked with the UK government's innovation centre Digital Catapult on a variety of wide-area network projects.
In 2017, See.Sense created a device that connects to a long-range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) device to integrate into Belfast City's Bike Share scheme to crowdsource data and collect information about road quality, potholes, commuter behaviour, traffic congestion and accident hotspots.
This led the firm to partner with Digital Catapult to design a new product that would work on LoRaWAN, which allows devices to transfer large packets of data quickly without the energy demands of LTE networks. Compared to using a cellular network, which drains batteries, low-power networks can communicate for months at a time on a single charge.
See.Sense hopes to create a low-powered device, charged by the kinetic energy produced by riding a bicycle, that can be easily folded into bike-share schemes. The benefit here is that even if a bicycle has laid dormant for months, its extremely low power consumption would still allow it to communicate with the network.
In theory, local authorities would be able to find lost or stolen bikes that might have otherwise been totally untraceable.
“However, the challenge is transporting these large volumes of data,"says McAleese. "With the data in the lights, we're actually scanning the environment 800 times a second. That's billions of data points, and then we have to put in an edge processor on the device which crunches it down, for want of a better word, so that you can actually send these tiny packets of information over the network.”
The company has also been working with Vodafone on the latest iteration of its low-power network, Narrow Band IoT (NB IoT) and partnering with Exeter-based bike share company Co-Bike to help See.Sense be first to the market with a device that operates on this network.
"It's really exciting and we've actually built [the technology] into a commercial product as well,” says McAleese. “A bike tracker for cyclists, a bit like Find My Phone.”
She explains that if someone’s stolen your bike, users can just use their phone to locate it, and will also receive alerts if their bike is being tampered with.
As companies look to become more sustainable, promoting the benefits of cycling to employees is also an easy win. In the coming months, See.Sense hopes to capitalise on this emerging trend.
A partnership with Amazon was launched in December 2019 and a number of other companies across the UK have already approached See.Sense seeking to partner up and further promote these sustainability goals.
“We’re not just sending out a free bike light and a bit of tat,” McAleese says. “For us, it actually feels like data can help transform a city, which is good for everyone, not just cyclists.”
See.Sense was one of eight companies recognised in the 2019 Digital Catapult Platinum Awards. Techworld helped with the judging of the awards, which recognise and celebrate the most innovative advanced digital technology startups and scaleups that Digital Catapult has supported in the past year.