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Powering up: Capstone pandemic project taps solar for Calgary escooters

When a group of five University of Calgary mechanical engineering students got together in person last summer, they needed a capstone project.

A capstone project is the culmination of your university education put into one final, great work.

They met along the RiverWalk just outside downtown Calgary. It’s an area buzzing with activity – including escooters.

The group brought up the idea of parking the escooters. Then, charging.

How were they being charged? They Googled it.

“They actually physically find the scooters, take them out and then charge them, like in people’s houses, and then bring them back,” said Ruo Huang.

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“No offense to anything, but it was kind of that thought of ‘oh, that’s a little bit inefficient.’ It kind of takes away the green aspect of it in the sense that another car that’s coming and picking up and taking away.”

That’s when the group comprised of members Ruo Huang, Huda Azeem, Chantalle Maundy, Masooma Tahir and Kushan Wickramarachchi decided on their capstone project.

They believed there was a better way to charge the scooters.

This project comes at a time when the City of Calgary approved year-round use of the transportation devices. This UCalgary engineering team presented during a recent transportation and transit meeting on the escooter pilot project.

Different ideas on powering escooters up

The team started off the with the premise of eliminating the carbon footprint of the vehicles used to transport the escooters, said team member Huda Azeem.

The group ruled out a portable charging station.

“We wanted to create a charging station that could be centered in the hubs, right where scooters collect currently,” Azeem said.

At first, they thought it could be a charging station wired right into the electrical grid. That would help eliminate the carbon footprint because the transport wouldn’t be needed.

But, Calgary is one of the sunniest cities, right? So, they decided to make the solution even greener and have the charging stations solar powered.

Work on the prototype began.

Their design consisted of four charging stalls powered by a solar array above. After testing different models, they determined that they could collect enough power to charge 16 escooters per day.  

“We wanted to figure out what would be the optimal number of scooters to be able to charge at each station right per day, in such a way that it would be convenient for the consumers, and it would also be profitable for the scooter company,” said Azeem.

The design is the physical size of a bus stop, but doesn’t take up quite the same physical space, said team member Chantalle Maundy.

“We don’t have four walls surrounding it,” she said.

The open design has the panels mounted, umbrella style, affixed to a pole.


Location, location, location

It wasn’t just about the design though. The group had to determine ideal locations. After all, without a clear path to sunlight, the stations wouldn’t reach maximum charging capacity.

But, there are bureaucratic development hoops to jump through, too, said team member Masooma Tahir. They’d need permits, they’d have to meet certain specifications.

“They (the city) have had previous projects, you just have to meet their guidelines,” said Tahir.

“That’s what we had to take into account in our final design… so we can place them in the downtown or even in other public places.”

The environmental surrounding also played a role in how these could be deployed. Team member Kushan Wickramarachchi said they collected data on high concentration areas for escooters, like the bike lanes.

“We also needed to consider the shading and the model, like if there’s going to be any disturbance with the solar power in terms of downtime,” he said.

There were several factors that went into figuring out ideal locations: high traffic, high sunlight, limited shading, city requirements and more. They didn’t have a specific number of locations, but Azeem said that it would likely coincide with the hubs the city and escooter companies had already created.

They envision charging stations at these locations, but also on university campuses, outside hotels, tourism hot spots and other transportation hubs.

Partnership with Lime

Data and technical needs the University of Calgary team used came from Lime, one of Calgary’s escooter providers.

Lime Canada spokesperson Jonathan Hopkins said they were happy to support this local work.

“We’re big fans of good tech and engineering and supporting the next generation of talent out there,” he said.

Lime provided the team scooters they could test with, and they met with the group every couple of weeks to provide feedback and technical support.

Hopkins said there are other systems like this that they’ve used in select other markets. If something like this were to be produced, it’s the type of thing they would consider in their network.

“Docking stations like this are best for really, really high usage areas, where you have a property owner that is interested in having one of these things,” Hopkins said.

He mentioned places like university campuses or downtown office or high-rise residential buildings. That requires another partnership between the landowners and the company.

The capstone pandemic project

This process hasn’t been like other capstone projects. Where groups would typically work physically together, this group is all virtual.

“I mean students would be in the labs constantly, right? In the labs, they’d be in the machine shops, they would drop off things.  They would have numerous physical prototypes, right, they’d be together 24-7,” said Azeem.

Instead, it’s Zoom, Google Drives… and more Zoom.

Huang said they’ve been able to use some of the modeling software and have it shared virtually, along with Excel spreadsheets and graphs of the work.

“It was more, I feel like, the communication and the teamwork aspects that we had to kind of work through and really understanding how to unlock,” she said.

It’s that different sort of teamwork that stuck out for some.

“It really brings about into perspective how in the workplace cooperation between people with different disciplines is really important,” said Maundy.

Next steps

First up – design verification. Then, testing: Does it work the way the team expects?

What about a physical prototype? Well, the pandemic plays a role in that. As it has in the entire project. (The group has only met once in person.)

If they get a protype built, then they’d find a target location where they could beta test the system, said Maundy. Perhaps the university campus.

“Then you just run tests on how it interacts with people, how the actual design performs as expected,” she said.

After that, it’s time to market it.

“Get the idea out there, expand it, make sure people know about it,” said Maundy.