Walking, the next generation

Engineer John Morrell ’86 didn’t give the opening remarks for his talk in Davies Auditorium from the normal podium — he delivered them while cruising around the front of the room on what appeared to be a glorified motorized scooter.

In the second of three engineering lectures held this spring in honor of the Faculty of Engineering’s sesquicentennial, Morrell talked specifically about bridging the gap between research ideas and final products, using his Segway Human Transporter as a prime example.

Developed at a cost of more than $100 million, the Segway mimics the human body’s ability to maintain its balance while moving using a suite of miniature gyroscopes, tilt sensors and other silicon gadgets.

A simple rechargeable battery and a complex bundle of hardware and software are all that are needed to carry a Yalie for up to 12 miles on just a few cents’ worth of electricity.

The main idea behind this personal human transporter, able to reach a top speed of 12.5 miles per hour, is to put a human being into a system where the machine acts as an extension of the body. To move, you need to just think about moving. Segway’s control system is sensitive to the slightest movements and will begin to urge forward as power is sent to a pair of electric motors at the wheels.

While it takes the average human about a year to master this task of balancing and walking, it took Morrell and his team only three years to build this function into a machine on wheels.

It was such a feat that the transporter was featured in Time magazine last December.

“This was a great example of the kind of students we produce,” said Paul Fleury, the dean of the Faculty of Engineering. “He’s a first-class engineer who could stand with anyone.”

Mechanical engineering and applied physics professor Mitchell Smooke taught Morrell when he was at Yale back in the fall of 1984. Smooke said he remembers Morrell as one of his top students: “You just had a sense that he was going to be doing something very good.”

It was Arthur C. Clarke who famously observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But Morrell assured the full house in Davies that this is a feat of engineering, not magic.

“It is just doing what is innately programmed in all of us,” he said.

Morrell’s talk included discussion of his research teams’ practices and how he has found success in bringing ideas into the realm of actual production. From the importance of people management to “always showing all the data,” Morrell used metaphor after metaphor to keep the audience chuckling.

“I have a motorized scooter here at Yale, and I like different wheeled devices, so I thought it would be cool to see the Segway in person,” said Jeohn Favors ’05, who attended the lecture in his roller blades.

Morrell, who is currently managing dynamics and software development at Segway, joined the DEKA Research team in 1996 to help engineer IBOT, a device to help handicapped people climb stairs.

In 1999, Morrell began work on developing the control software and system design of a two-wheeled mobility device code named “Ginger,” using the same dynamic stabilization technology IBOT had employed.

One audience member asked if Morrell intended Segway to be a replacement for walking. Morrell quipped back, “It depends on what your time is worth.”

Police officers, mail carriers and paramedics can all tell you what a minute is worth in their fields, he said.

The U.S. Postal Service will be examining whether Segways can help letter carriers make more stops on their daily rounds, while Amazon.com, GE Plastics and Delphi Automotive Systems test out Segways in their factories, looking to increase efficiency as packages and workers travel around the workplace with less effort.

Of course, Morrell’s unconventional sidewalk cruiser is not perfect. Intended for sidewalks, many municipalities ban similar motorized devices on such pedestrian paths.

And at 80 pounds, it will be too heavy for the average user to carry with ease. There is also a hefty price tag: $3,000 for the first consumer models, which are expected to become available in the coming years.

“I think it just fuels laziness,” Barbara Yu ’04 said. “Technology is supposed to make life easier, but a brisk walk is not so far removed from our society now, is it?”

After Morrell’s talk, Fleury joked that it was only a matter of time before riding Segways became an Olympic sport.

“Only with no judges,” Morrell said.

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