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Scientists unlock the secrets of bike stability, make riders optional


We've peered back in time to the early days of the universe, just following the Big Bang, and unraveled the mysteries of the human genome -- yet we don't really know how a moving bicycle manages to stay upright without a meatbag manning the handlebars. Scientists have long thought that it had something to do with the gyroscopic effect created by the spinning wheels and the caster effect of having the front wheel trail the steering axis (don't worry, it's all explained in a video at the source link). Researchers at Cornell, however, have created a tiny bike that generates neither of those effects yet, thanks to carefully calibrated mass distribution, still stays vertical when moving over 5MPH. The insights learned here could lead to self-stabilizing rides for us and cooler wheels for our pedal-happy automatons to inherit. PR after the break.

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A bicycle built for none: Riderless bike helps researchers learn how balance rolls along

ITHACA, N.Y. – In a discovery that could lead to better and safer bicycle design, researchers have shown that long-accepted "gyro" and "caster" effects are not needed to make a bike balance itself. In fact, it's a mixture of complicated physical effects – linked to the distribution of mass – that makes it so a bicycle can remain up when moving.

This finding was demonstrated on a riderless bike by researchers at Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin-Stout and Delft, The Netherlands. (Science, April 15, 2011.)

"It's all about how bicycle leaning automatically causes steering, which can bring the wheels back under a falling bike," said Andy Ruina, professor of mechanics at Cornell and a co-author on the paper titled, "Bicycles can be self-stable without gyroscopic or caster effects."

The trail or caster effect is called that because the front wheel of a bike behaves like the front caster wheel of a grocery cart.

To prove that gyro and caster effects were not needed, the researchers built a riderless bicycle with two small wheels, each matched with a counter-rotating disk to eliminate the gyro effects, and with the front wheel contact point slightly ahead of the steering axis, giving it a negative caster effect. When launched at more than about 5 mph, the research bike – like many bicycles – still balanced itself. If you knock it slightly to one side, it straightens itself back upright.

"We have found that almost any self-stable bicycle can be made unstable by misadjusting either the trail, the front-wheel gyro or the front-assembly, center-of-mass position," the researchers explained in their paper. "Conversely, many unstable bicycles can be made stable by appropriately adjusting any one of these three design variables."

While their work was intended to gain insight into the nature of bicycle balance, the researchers said, their analysis might lead to further improvements in bicycle design.

"The evolutionary process that has led to common present bicycle designs might not yet have explored potentially useful regions in design space," the report concludes.

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