Since Hubway’s official unveiling six months ago, Bostonians have had plenty to say about the bike-sharing service, including our very own Lisa DeCanio. She admitted she didn’t use Hubway, but for one major reason: the lack of available helmets. Come the summer, however, she might be forced to saddle up, because a group of MIT students have solved her problem by creating — wait for it — a vending machine that can dispense helmets to Hubway users. The service is called HelmetHub, and the city couldn’t be more thrilled.
“For the mayor, ‘helmets’ and ‘bikes’ are always in the same sentence,” said Nicole Freedman, who runs the city’s Boston Bikes program, which oversees Hubway. “The fact that the students did this is very exciting.”
Created by 12 undergraduates from MIT’s 2.009 Product Processes, a product-design course that has students building prototypes from scratch in one semester, HelmetHub features a touch screen similar to those on Hubway rental kiosks. Drawing power from solar panels, the vending machine ties into the company’s eco-friendly initiatives, and promises to take up minimal space on the city’s sidewalks.
Freedman connected with the students after visiting the class’s “ideas fair” in September, where companies can propose problems they’re having and ask the students for help solving them. Although Hubway has helped alleviate some of the transportation issues in the city, safety has remained a major concern, which is where student Danielle Hicks and her team knew they could step in.
“This was something significant, and it did have a lot of social weight,” Hicks said. “We liked that we could work closely with Boston. That was important to us.”
Freedman said she worked closely with the students, “giving them parameters that would make [HelmetHub] successful.” Freedman admitted that “space is a premium in the city,” but also wanted to make sure the helmets could be supplied at a low cost.
The group envisions the vending machines as sale-and-rental kiosks, allowing those who purchase helmets at the $8 Hubway partner price to return them for a partial refund, according to the Boston Globe. They’re also talking about developing a beta version of HelmetHub that could be ready for testing as early as this summer once a few of the kinks are worked out.
To help get the machine running, Hicks said the team worked closely with MIT’s Pappalardo Lab. They assisted with the welding and overall mechanics. The mechanism that allowed the machine to dispense only one helmet at a time went through at least six or seven iterations before the group felt ready to present their final project. Now, Hicks admitted, they’re working on styling a patent for it.
Freedman, who’s currently coach of the MIT Cycling Team, said she was not the least bit surprised at what the students were able to do, although she was “very excited.”
Hicks and the team are pretty excited, too, and fully intend on building several more prototypes when they return for the upcoming semester.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hicks said. “You go to MIT, and people tell you ‘that’s great’ and ‘that’s incredible,’ but you kind of get bogged down by the day-to-day.”
It wasn’t until she returned home to California over winter break, and started talking to friends and family about what she had helped built, that she fully realized what she’d accomplished.
“This could turn into a job for me,” she said. “This could even move to New York City. We’d love to see the HelmetHub at every bike-share system in the U.S.”
Photos courtesy of Joshua Ramos