First-year Singapore undergrads aim to pilot ‘Grab for e-scooters’, complete with self-driving capability

The Nanyang Technological University undergraduates won two awards for their Whizz Scooters project at the IMDA Youth Innovation Awards. — Picture courtesy of Singapore Info-communications Media Development Authority via TODAY
The Nanyang Technological University undergraduates won two awards for their Whizz Scooters project at the IMDA Youth Innovation Awards. — Picture courtesy of Singapore Info-communications Media Development Authority via TODAY

SINGAPORE, May 29 — With a mobile application, a self-driving e-scooter will make its own way to the pick-up point of the rider. After using the e-scooter, the rider can just leave it anywhere and it will travel to a designated parking lot on its own.

This is the vision for an e-scooter prototype and application that five Nanyang Technological University (NTU) first-year undergraduates are working on.

Calling it Whizz Scooters, they are eager to get it successfully completed and working by the end of next year.

Melvin Foo, 22, who came up with the idea for Whizz Scooters, said: “We hope that this will solve the street-litter problem (of personal mobility devices) that we see today.”

With their prototype, Foo and his peers won two of five awards at the Youth Innovation Awards held on May 18 and 19, organised by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA). They were among 20 finalists from seven countries taking part.

The NTU team won a S$4,000 (about RM12,156) cash prize in total after clinching the Visitor’s Choice and Best of Show awards.

Next up for the team is to work towards test-bedding a fleet of the devices on NTU’s campus over the next few months.

They are planning to run a 100-scooter test fleet by the end of this year, and a professor is helping the team to apply for permission to do this trial.

The team’s mentor, Professor Ong Yew Soon, who is also the director of NTU’s Data Science & Artificial Intelligence Research Centre, said: “NTU has always been a test-bed for autonomous vehicles. It makes sense to tap these resources as a starting ground.”

More work than sleep

The team has been working hard on this for the past year. Foo and four other peers are from NTU’s Renaissance Engineering Programme, a dual-degree programme where students study for a Bachelor of Engineering Science and a Master of Science in Technology Management in four-and-a-half years.

As they juggled this project on top of their usual school work and took part in two competitions, Foo said that they often slept an average of four to five hours a night.

“I spend perhaps four hours a day studying, and the rest of the time goes into (Whizz Scooter),” said Foo, quipping that he skipped lectures at times.

Vivienne Chong, 20, who takes charge of the design and marketing of Whizz Scooters, said: “At the same time, even though we said, ‘Oh, let’s take a break. Let’s start focusing on (school tests and exams)’, but we end up coming back to the lab to work on the (project).”

Asked to describe what they hope to achieve, she said: “It’s like Grab, but for e-scooters.”

Foo said that during this holiday period from May to August, most of his team members, including himself, have taken on internships in related fields to try and apply what they learn in their project.

“To be honest, it was very hard. Much harder than expected,” Foo said of the Whizz Scooters project. Nevertheless, they are having fun while at it, they said.

The spark of an idea

In junior college, Foo was inspired after watching a TED Talks video by Boosted Boards’ co-founder Sanjay Dastoor, who built an electric skateboard with remote-control airplane motors.

With some experience handling remote-control airplanes himself, Foo thought of building one on his own. Instead of a skateboard though, he dreamt of building a three-wheeled e-scooter as it is “beginner-friendly”.

At NTU’s Renaissance Engineering Programme, Foo met like-minded individuals with a diverse set of skills and formed the team to build Whizz Scooters.

During the Singapore-India Hackathon hosted by NTU last November, where 20 teams from universities across the two countries were tasked to build innovative tech solutions for a smart campus, the idea for Whizz Scooters did not make it past the first round. The prototype failed.

“(The judges) doubted if we could do this (autonomous e-scooter system),” Foo recalled. “(The hackathon) put us in our place.”

Despite the disappointment, the team continued working on the project and introduced more cameras as sensors, so that the e-scooter’s artificial intelligence could collect more visual information and react better.

The greatest milestone they crossed was when their autonomous e-scooter managed to navigate bends on its own this month, just in time for the competition.

“We were shocked when it worked,” he said. “It showed that the e-scooter was ‘learning’, and our algorithm was effective.”

The team’s ultimate goal is to see the model being widely adopted across the island in 2020, so that riders can have more convenient transport options.

On the tight schedule, Foo said: “Honestly, if we don’t do it (first), someone else will.” — TODAY

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