Airwheel – a self-balancing unicycle

Hands up, who’s ever heard of an Airwheel? Okay a few of you at the back… oh no you’re just scratching your heads.

Okay, take a look at this.

A woman riding an Airwheel down a busy street

A traditional unicycle

What most people think of when you talk about unicycles

I am of course referring to the ‘gadget’ not the lady who is standing upon it.

That device (or ‘gadget’ as I just referred to it) is called an Airwheel. That’s how I describe mine to people now. Self-balancing motorised unicycle was a bit of a mouthful and it often gave people who hadn’t seen one the wrong idea as to what I was riding – I’m not training to join a circus!

To be precise, the lady in the above picture is standing (well, strictly speaking she is balancing) on an Airwheel X5; a 10kg model with a 500 watt motor and a 14 inch tyre. Airwheel being the brand, X5 the model.

I’ve recently bought myself an Airwheel and as a technology blogger I feel it’s my duty to put it through it’s paces, and then write a review on my findings. That’s not this post though, the review is coming out next Monday. Today my plan is to break you in gently to the Airwheel concept and technology.

Airwheel Brand

As I’ve already mentioned, Airwheel is the brand and there are many different models of Airwheel. They mainly make devices like the one in the picture above (right at the top, not the one of the traditional unicycle!) but they also make a Segway style rover and a skateboard type transporter – called the Airboard.

The model I have bought is a two wheel Airwheel Q3 – also known as the Mars Rover. Strictly speaking having two wheels means it’s not a unicycle – so it’s a bicycle, or a ducycle, but there isn’t any cycling involved so… I don’t really know what it is!

How Does An Airwheel Work?

Airwheel Q3

The model I own – the Airwheel Q3

You may be wondering, what is the technology behind the Airwheel? Well it’s actually reasonably simple.

The computer chip (which is tucked away safe from water and dust in a compartment inside the unit) uses information it gets from its sensors to keep the device level by moving the wheel(s). If the user puts pressure on the unit in a forwards direction (by leaning forwards and pushing their toes towards the floor) the device moves forwards. To slow down they then push down with their heals, which reduces the speed and can even enable you to reverse!

Here is how Andy from Airwheel Direct describes the technology:

“A computer control board constantly monitors the state of the Airwheel and it’s position relative to the ground, it uses this information to control the brushless hub motor and keep the unit upright. Leaning forwards on the foot plates begins to tilt the Airwheel and therefore makes the wheel rotate to keep it underneath your feet, the result being forward motion. Turning is achieved much like a bicycle by leaning left or right. The more you lean, the tighter the turn will be.”

Are They Versatile?

In one word: very! You can travel forwards and backwards on them at up to around 11/12mph. Once you get the hang of it you can travel over grass, gravel and mud, turn in very tight spaces and jump up and down steps and curbs! Want proof? Here is a (bit of a daft) video of me, pushing my Q3 to its limits.

You may be shouting “don’t break it!” at your screen, but don’t worry, it’s pretty durable. I’ve fallen off mine whilst testing the limits several times – no broken bones, yet! – and it still works; like new. As you may have been able to pick up from that video, I’ve covered mine in foam and then Gaffer taped it on. The only reason I have done this is to protect the casing. When I first took it out I fell off once or twice and as the unit fell over it scuffed itself a little. The foam now takes the impact instead – although I seldom fall off nowadays.

That’s it for this article. I will be doing a full review of my experience of the Airwheel Q3 next week and will be deciding is it any good, and if so, is it worth what it costs.

In the meantime, if you are interested in finding out more about Airwheel and the different models, check out Airwheel Direct. I’ve been given an exclusive discount code for Technology Bloggers, if you enter TB5 at the checkout it will get you 5% off all models.

Information technology security and business

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Technology has had an undeniably colossal affect on how we do business. We can now communicate with people around the world in real time, pay for goods with the swipe of a card or click of a mouse and download files from the cloud with the push of a button.

Like with most things in life though, technology does have its downsides. Historically, technological problems have centred around speed and reliability. Thanks to advances in programming, processing power and cabling, technology is now faster and more reliable than it has ever been. This is also in part thanks to more people becoming ‘tech savvy’. People expect more of technology, and more people are working to improve it. As such, the age old issues of speed and reliability which have plagued almost all forms of technology, are no longer under the spotlight. I would argue that security is now a bigger issue.

A padlock on an ethernet cableThe growth of the global tech savvy population means that more people understand how technology works, which is great in some respects, but from a security perspective, it can be concerning. If your employees know how to access confidential files you store on your server, or your customers are able to apply 99% discounts to products in your online shop then you have a problem.

In 2014 eBay was one of the most high profile victims. Vulnerabilities in Javascript and Flash code on some listing pages enabled hackers to steal users information, post fake listings and redirect visitors to fake payment pages. In 2013 Sony was fined a quarter of a million pounds by the ICO in the UK for compromising customer details in a 2011 data breach.

In it’s recently released business security e-book, Dell state that they believe many of the security problems we face today are because businesses use fragmented systems and they use a different security solution to protect each one. Whilst your payment system might be completely watertight, if it’s linked to your website, which happens to contain some vulnerable Java technology, then hackers may be able to crawl into your systems. To quote Dell’s Director of Product Marketing, Bill Evans “Patchwork solutions that combine products from multiple vendors inevitably lead to the blame game“. He goes on to say that when using fragmented systems, each vendor “is responsible for only part of the problem” making it very difficult to properly secure your systems.

There are many different solutions for companies out there. As a business you could ground yourself firmly in the first half of the 20th century and refuse to adopt technology of any kind. After all, if all the details on your client, Mrs Jones, are kept in a file in filing cabinet 35B on the sixth floor of the of your customer information storage centre, a hacker cannot squirrel their way into your network and then publish Mrs Jones’ details on the Internet. That does however mean that when Mrs Jones pops in to see you, you have to keep her waiting for 20 minutes whilst you go to find her file – as opposed to typing her name in and pulling up her details on your tablet.

There are often benefits of using software and technologies from different vendors, and it would be foolish to dismiss a good business system just because it has a few minor potential security floors. The challenge then is to find a security system than can protect your new technologies.

A security key on a keyboardUsing a single, comprehensive security system, such as Dell Endpoint Security to protect all your information technologies would help top alleviate many of the problems that arise when using a patchwork network of security systems. Using one system would instantly eliminate conflicts between security software. It can also be much easier to manage one unified system than trying to juggle several separate schemes.

Naturally each individual security system may have some specific advantages that one universal security system may not, but the fact that a universal system is just that, universal to all your businesses technology, is a huge advantage.

Dell believes that all good universal security systems should: protect the entire business both internally and externally; comply with all internal policies and indeed national laws; and enable employees to adopt technologies with confidence and ease, promoting efficiency and innovation.

What are your views on business technology security? Let us know in the comments below.

Nanotechnology Regulation

Nanotechnology applications chart

Last week I did not post as I was preparing to chair a session at a plenary for the European Commission in Brussels. Full details are available here, but today I would like to pose a few issues that were raised during the event.

This is not the first time I have spoken at conferences about nanotechnology regulation, nor is it my first Technology bloggers post on the matter. Readers might like to take a look at these posts going back to 2012.

But as an overview my interest is in regulation. And the problems raised 3 years ago are ever more pressing. Nano products are everywhere (see the diagram above, and that is old), they do not have to be labeled, and there are still questions about health and regulation that have never been answered.

Last week’s topic was the Responsible Nano Code, a document drawn up to offer guidance to nanotechnology producers as a guide. It is voluntary, has no legal standing (I will come on to that though) and is a set of principles rather than a regulatory code.

The code can be freely downloaded here.

The principles address issues such as Director Board accountability and involvement, stakeholder involvement, worker health and safety, public health, safety and environmental risks, wider social, health, environmental and ethical implications and impacts, engaging with business partners and transparency and disclosure. And if you read the code you find nothing that anyone wouldn’t agree with.

The preparation was a serious endeavour too, it took several years to come to its final draft, and involved a lot of people. Founders included the Royal Society, Nanotechnologies Industries Association, Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network and Insight Investment.

Upon completion the code was presented across the world. In the USA however several problems were seen due to the nature of the law there. One problem is the risk of being sued. If a company states that they follow a code they become liable to legal action if someone can demonstrate that they did not in fact follow some aspect of the code. So companies are reluctant to state that they follow a code unless it is mandatory.

Also if a code is followed by a group of companies, it becomes the benchmark, so all companies are then judged according to that code, even if they do not participate. So implementation carries some really serious consequences.

In the US, nanomaterials are regulated in the same way as any other materials, and not specifically as nano, which to some seems problematic. Health issues have been raised (see my first nano post through the link above) and never resolved. And we must bear in mind that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of products in all sectors. In order to follow through on the pledges in the code, producers would have to educate and look after not only their own workers, but anyone who deals with these products throughout their entire lifespan. This includes, transport workers, salespeople, shopkeepers, waste collectors and disposal workers, end users, the list goes on.

And if there is a need for regulation, who is going to write it? I can’t write it, so do we need an expert? But can we get a nanotechnology expert who is probably positive about the undoubted advantages of pursuing a technology to write the regulations? Will they be balanced? Or should we ask a member of Greenpeace, or anyone else who might hold serious doubts about the processes and politics involved?

These are open questions, and although I cannot myself offer any answers it is something that we can and should all discuss. And it makes for an interesting line of work!

What’s in Your Computer (and phone, and WiFi)?

gates

Lenovo

This week the news is full of Lenovo, a computer manufacturer that has been selling machines that they have already fitted with what some call Malware or just Adware. Magic in the machine indeed!

The mal/adware in question is made by a company called “Superfish.” The software is essentially an Internet browser add-on that injects ads onto websites you visit. Details here.

Besides taking up space in your computer, the add-on is also dangerous because it undermines basic computer security protocols.

That’s because it tampers with a widely-used system of official website certificates. That makes it hard for your computer to recognize a fake bank website. This means that you are more likely to give all of your personal data away, let nasty things into your computer, and allow people to monitor your use.

No good I hear you say, and all so that they can feed you adverts while you are browsing.

Hidden Extras?

But this news does bring up another question, what else is in the computer? What else is it programmed to do? The simple answer is that I and probably most of you do not know. We have bought a machine that does the things we want it to do, but who knows what else?

Now as I eat my breakfast, I like to read the ingredients on the side of the packet. It is good for language skills as it is usually in several languages. But can I do this with my computer? You don’t get much in the way of documentation with a $400 laptop. Certainly not considering what is inside it.

So the computer company in question have disabled something at their end and the problem is resolved. But if they tell you that they fixed the problem are you going to believe them? After they did something that put your computer and everything saved on it at risk? Or should you put a new operating system on the new machine, wipe the hard drive and start again?

Why do we trust these manufacturers when they consistently do things that are not in our interest? WiFi providers that con your computer into trusting fake certificates so that they can block certain sites (and read your mail or follow your searches)? Samsung that record your voice through your smart TV and send it non encrypted over the Internet to unnamed third parties, social media sites and search engines that collect your data, mobile phone companies that map your every movement, the list goes on.

So if you cannot trust wifi, or computer manufacturers, or Google, or Facebook, or Samsung to treat our data securely and correctly, who can you trust? And more to the point why are we giving them our lives to play with?