What does it take to be the fastest human on the planet?

After missing out on last year’s title, a Plymouth University team, led by lecturer in Mechanical and Marine Engineering Design Adam Kyte, are coming back fighting ahead of the 2016 World Human Powered Speed Challenge.

This unique and physically demanding cycling event will be taking place in September in Battle Mountain, Nevada (pictured), and after a year of fine-tuning, the Plymouth team believe they have a bike that’s capable of victory in both the male and female categories.

Take a look inside Beluga, Plymouth University’s ingenious arm-powered handcycle for people with limited use of their legs, and discover the result of acute precision engineering, months of deliberation and many hours of testing.

1. Outer shell

The bike’s streamlined dome is built from lightweight composite materials including glass fibre, carbon fibre and Kevlar, held within an epoxy resin. Plymouth University students, technicians and staff were all responsible for creating the structure using these specialised building materials. The concept for the bike’s shell was formulated using computer-aided design software whilst the painstaking task of creating the initial shape of the mould fell to one particular student who had to fashion it from over 40 individual sheets of MDF.

2. On-board sensors

A number of on-board sensors are incorporated into the design. One sensor measures the power being delivered by the rider. Another measures the speed that the rider is peddling at, whilst a corresponding sensor measures the speed of the bike itself. All of this data is used to validate the team’s prior calculations as well as to make the tweaks needed to improve the performance of the bike or get more out of the rider.  

3. Riding position

To power the bike, a rider must sit crouched down with their torso over their knees. It’s a confined position, but making the bike as small as possible was vital to minimising aerodynamic drag – aerodynamics play a key role in producing the bike’s velocity. A chest support adds to the rider’s comfort, while a tray, cast around the shape of the individual athlete’s legs, keeps the lower body in place. All of the power to propel the bike comes from the rider’s arms.

4. Internal mechanism

Many of the bike’s internal components were handmade at Plymouth University. The main frame is built from aluminium and sits alongside other standard, ‘off-the-shelf’ components like the gears and chain set, although, as you might imagine, there is some fairly high-spec technology involved, too. For example, the gears are controlled electronically, much in the same way that an automatic gearbox works on a car.

5. Cycle mechanism

The design for the bike’s unique cycle mechanism is the result of a combined and sustained effort by leagues of students at Plymouth University. Just like the bike’s shell and structure, the final version came about after four years of development through engineering and design projects, final year dissertations and numerous group analysis sessions.

6. Wheels and steering

The wheels used on the Plymouth University team’s bike are actually found as standard on recumbent bikes. However, the mechanism developed to steer them is far from it. The system was conceived and developed at the University and requires a rider to steer the bike using their head. A sensitive pad either side of the rider’s helmet replaces a steering wheel. Instead of turning by hand, a small nudge of the head will point the bike in the required direction.

The riders

Chris Jones is an ex-serviceman who, after sustaining injuries during combat in the late 1990s, has limited use of his legs. One of two riders, Chris’s contribution to the Plymouth University effort is being supported by military charity Help for Heroes.

Sarah Piercy is a professional hand cyclist and wheelchair racer. She won the 2000 London Marathon women’s wheelchair competition on her first attempt at just 19 years old. Since then, she has competed in the London Marathon a further seven times.


Student Life magazine - Summer 2016 issue 3