Will It Fly? Bicycle Desk Edition

NASA's social network discusses the potential of bicycle desk technology, and harnessing the energy of a workout

Prototype (Amblin Entertainment)

Earlier this week I wrote about a great bicycle desk that can generate power. The start-up Pedal Power demonstrated their product running laptops and cell phones, but also splitting logs, pumping water, and literally grinding axes. This is the prototype:

Pedal Power

Among the reader responses I received was this:

Dear Dr. Hamblin,

I posted your story about the bicycle desk to our intranet here at NASA, and I thought you might be interested in the string of comments it has generated thus far.  

Thanks for the great article,

Mary Tonkinson

Normally, reading a string of comments about one of my posts is not a super appealing proposition. That's just because by nature, Internet comment threads aren't, you know, bastions of cordiality. But that was a positive email, and it involved NASA. I have a long-standing interest in the progressive desk sciences.

So I read, and I did find it interesting. I asked if I could share it with everyone, and they said yes, so here is the conversation from Yammer—the internal social network used by NASA. Some of these people have not met in person and work at different branches. Most are aerospace engineers. They are not speaking for NASA.

Nelson Brown

I totally thought of this first. [Link to archived conversation.]

Mary Tonkinson in reply to Brown

You weren't the only one.  Years and years ago I had a friend named Phil who used to ask—repeatedly—why every gym and sports club didn't have a giant spring or battery system on the roof to collect all the energy being expended by the exercisers inside. I told him that the club members paying those hefty monthly fees to work out probably wouldn't go for the idea of their labor producing actual value—it counts as conspicuous consumption only when waste is involved.  But evidently others were also imagining how many watts of electricity could be generated by all those fashion- and health-conscious spinners, not to mention the desk jockeys of the world.  That's a lot o' wattage.

Nelson Brown to Green NASA

I was somewhat joking about connecting a generator to an office treadmill, but it made me curious about how much power a human can make. According to Wikipedia:
Walking (240 watts)
Running (1000 watts)
Sprinting (1700 watts at 25km/h)

So walking should provide enough power to run my laptop, if the mechanism is somewhat efficient.

Kevin Farrah in reply to Brown

I'd rather be flying...

David Barford testing his "Betterfly" human powered aircraft at Sywell airfield, Northampton, June 2012

Nelson Brown in reply to Tonkinson 

I’ve also daydreamed about a stationary bike on a hexapod connected to a flight sim. The simulated horsepower of your Fokker could be a function of your pedal output wattage. Also, I think there could be haptic feedback using a continuously-variable transmission or varying how deep the rotors and stators go in the generator.

I wonder if micro-turbine generators (for DIY hydroelectric in wetter climates than ours) or generators for small scale wind turbines would be an appropriate size. I also wonder if recent developments in small/light electric motors also translate to generators.

3-DoF (mboardmansc/wikimedia)

Originally my idea was to mount monitors on the hexapod cockpit, but now I’m thinking of Oculus Rift.

Maybe a 3-DoF motion sim would be fun but cost effective. Sometimes I think of an upright bike style seat and inceptors and a TRON 2.0 flying sim.

I think it would be strong encouragement to stick to exercise resolutions…

Mary Tonkinson in reply to Brown

My own daydream was more in the direction of social engineering. I started thinking that muscle-powered, energy-producing machines — treadmills, cycles, elliptical trainers, rowers, etc. — could be installed in existing gyms and sports clubs, and that patrons could choose to use them either to defray the cost of their membership or to produce an electricity "donation" to the club or, better yet, to a charity of their choice.

Then I began to think bigger: three national problems could be addressed with a single solution if POTUS and the First Lady joined forces to create "Power Stations"—public gyms where people could work out on energy-generating machines and receive cash for a small percentage of the power they produced, thus fighting obesity, providing (self-)employment, and creating alternative energy in one fell swoop. Instead of paying to work out, people could be paid to get fit, which would be a great incentive for a lot of folks. Or people could donate their wattage to a program for those who can't afford to pay for their utilities—PEPCO already has such a program. And all of this would have the salutary effect that the bike guys are hoping to see, namely, a renewal of people's relationship not only to the concept of power but to that of empowerment.

If you work at an interplanetary aeronautical engineering agency and have also been discussing one of my articles and how to make part of it fly, please do let me know.

My interview with the aforementioned bike guys (Steve Blood and Andy Wekin, Pedal Power's co-founders and only employees) ended with them musing that they have "been a little bit surprised by the media attention."

"We're just a couple of guys who live in a small town in upstate New York."

Now they are a couple guys who live in a small town in upstate New York who made a bike that can split logs and irrigate farmland (they are in talks to implement that in a part of rural India) and potentially take flight and solve at least three national crises. What else?

Would you work out at a public facility that paid you? What if the electricity you were generating was being used for evil?