Security Engineering: Inside the Scooter Startups

A year ago, ridesharing scooter startups were gearing up for launch. Workers at Bird, Lime, Skip, and Spin were busy improving their app, retrofitting scooters, and most importantly, figuring out the logistics of distributing thousands of electronic scooters along the sidewalks of the Bay Area. These companies were gearing up for a launch in early summer, but one company — nobody can remember exactly who — decided to launch early. First mover advantage, and all. Overnight, these scooter companies burst into overdrive, chucking scooters out of panel vans onto the sidewalk simply to keep up with the competition.

The thing about San Francisco, and California in general, is that it’s a very direct democracy masquerading as a representative government. Yes, there are city council members and a state legislature, but the will of the people will rule. No one liked tripping over the scooters littering the sidewalks, so the scooters ended up at the bottom of a lake. Or in trees. Or in the trash. In time, city permits were issued, just like a hot dog cart or any other business operating on a public sidewalk, and the piles of electric scooters disappeared. Not before hundreds of scooters were vandalized, that is.

It’s still early in the electric scooter rental startup space, but if there’s one company leading the pack, It’s Bird. they’re getting the most press, the CEO was formerly at Lyft and Uber (which explains the press), and they’ve raised nearly a half Billion dollars in funding (which explains the press). Bird is valued at two Billion dollars, and it’s one of four major ridesharing scooter startups. Pets.com had nothing on this.

Despite how overvalued you think a scooter startup might be, they’re still a business, and they’re ruled by the bottom line. Bird has grown a lot in the past year, and with that comes engineering challenges. The Bird scooters must be more resistant to vandalism. The Bird scooters must be harder to steal. Above all else, they must remain in service longer. This is the teardown of how Bird managed to improve their bottom line and engineer a better scooter.

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Liberating Birds For A Cheap Electric Scooter

A few months ago, several companies started deploying electric scooters on the sidewalks of cities around the United States. These scooters were standard, off-the-shelf electric scooters made in China, loaded up with battery packs, motors, and a ‘brain box’ that has a GPS unit, a cellular modem, and a few more electronics that turn this dumb electric scooter into something you can ride via an app. Dropping electronic waste on cities around the country was not looked upon kindly by these municipalities, and right now there are hundreds of Bird and Lime scooters in towing yards, just waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

This is a remarkable opportunity for anyone who can turn a screwdriver and handle a soldering iron. For mere pennies on the dollar you can buy dozens of these scooters, and you can own thousands of dollars in batteries and electronics if you show up to the right auction. [humanbeing21] over on the scootertalk forums is preparing for the Bird apocalypse, and he’s already converted a few of these scooters to be his personal transportation device.

The subject of this conversion are scooters deployed by Bird, which are in actuality Xiaomi MIJIA M365 scooters with a few added electronics to connect to the Internet. The ‘conversion kit’ for a Bird scooter comes directly from China, costs $30, and is apparently a plug-and-play sort of deal. The hardest part is finding a screwdriver with the right security bits, but that again is a problem eBay is more than willing to solve.

Right now, [humanbeing21] is in contact with a towing company that has well over a hundred Bird scooters on their lot, each accruing daily storage fees. Since these scooters only cost about $400 new, we’re probably well past the time when it makes sense for Bird to pay to get them out of storage. This means they’ll probably be heading for an auction where anyone can pick them up — all of them — for a hundred bucks or so.

Right now, scooter hacking is becoming one of the most interesting adventures in modern-day hacking. You’ve got batteries and electronics and motors just sitting there, ready for the taking (and yes, through these auctions you can do this legally). We’re looking at a future filled with 18650-based Powerwalls from discarded electric scooters and quadcopters built around scooter motors filling the skies. This is cyberpunk, and we can’t wait to see the other builds these scooters will become.

Bird Beats Cancer With The Help Of A 3D-Printed Prosthetic

It’s a reasonable certainty that 3D-printing is one day going to be a huge part of medicine. From hip implants to stents that prop open blood vessels to whole organs laid down layer by layer, humans will probably benefit immensely from medical printing. But if they do, the animals will get there first; somebody has to try this stuff out, after all.

An early if an unwilling adopter of 3D-printed medical appliances is [Jary], a 22-year-old Great Pied Hornbill, who recently received a 3D-printed replacement for his casque, the large, mostly hollow protuberance on the front the bird’s skull leading out over the upper beak. There’s no known function for the casque, but it had to be removed since cancer was destroying it and [Jary] wouldn’t have fared well post-surgically without one. Working from CT scans, the veterinary team created a model of the casque as well as a jig to guide the saw during surgery. There’s no word on what filament was used, but we’d guess PLA since it’s biocompatible and available in medical grades. The video below shows some of the surgery; it’s interesting to note that the prosthetic started out natural colored but quickly turned yellow as [Jary] preened with oils from glands near his tail feathers, just like a natural casque would.

Hornbills live to about 40 years old, so [Jary] is just middle-aged. Here’s hoping that he lives a long, happy life in return for being a pioneer in 3D-printing for medical and surgical appliances.

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High Tech Drone Scarecrows Can Make Airports Safer

If you pay attention to airplane news — or you watched the film Sully — you know planes have problems with birds. Sully was about US Airways flight 1549 which struck a flock of geese and ditched in the Hudson river.  Engineers at Caltech say that was the inspiration for them to develop a control algorithm that enables a single drone scarecrow to herd flocks of birds away from airports.

Airports have tried a lot of things to discourage birds ranging from trained falcons to manually-piloted drones. Apparently, herding birds is harder than you would think. If you fly the drone too far from a flock, it will ignore the threat. If you get too close, the flock will scatter making it both threaten a larger area and harder to control.

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Hacking When It Counts: Pigeon-Guided Missiles

The image of the crackpot inventor, disheveled, disorganized, and surrounded by the remains of his failures, is an enduring Hollywood trope. While a simple look around one’s shop will probably reveal how such stereotypes get started, the image is largely not a fair characterization of the creative mind and how it works, and does not properly respect those who struggle daily to push the state of the art into uncharted territory.

That said, there are plenty of wacky ideas that have come down the pike, most of which mercifully fade away before attracting undue attention. In times of war, though, the need for new and better ways to blow each other up tends to bring out the really nutty ideas and lower the barrier to revealing them publically, or at least to military officials.

Of all the zany plans that came from the fertile minds on each side of World War II, few seem as out there as a plan to use birds to pilot bombs to their targets. And yet such a plan was not only actively developed, it came from the fertile mind of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant psychologists, and very nearly resulted in a fieldable weapon that would let fly the birds of war.

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The Early Bird Repairs a Slug

When faced with a problematic Bird slug, [Chuck Martin] didn’t give up. He pecked away at the slug and brought us all along for the ride. If that sentence didn’t make sense to you, read on! Anyone who’s been to a hamfest has seen a Bird meter. The Bird Model 43 watt meter is the defacto standard for measuring transmitter power in-line. Bird meters don’t just work from DC to light though. In fact, the model 43 itself is just a bit of transmission line and a meter movement.  The magic happens inside the swappable measurement element. These elements, affectionately called “slugs” are calibrated for a frequency band and power range. An example would be the model 4410-6, which works from 50 – 200 MHz, at up to 1 kW. Most hams have a collection of these slugs to go with the bands they transmit on.

[Chuck’s] problem child was a model 100E element, good for 100 watts on 400 – 1000 MHz. The meter output seemed erratic though. A bit of troubleshooting with a second meter and a known good slug isolated the problem to the 100E. The problem was isolated to the slug, but how to fix it?

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Trading Bird Food for Cigarette Butts

Positive reinforcement is the process of getting someone to understand their actions result in a reward. Children get a sweet treat when they pick up all their toys and older ones might get some cash for mowing the lawn. From the perspective of the treat-giver, this is like turning treats into work. A Dutch startup wants to teach the crow population to pick up cigarette butts in exchange for bird treats.

The whole Corvidae family of birds is highly intelligent so it shouldn’t be a problem training them that they will get a reward for depositing something the Hominidae family regularly throw on the street where the birds live. This idea is in turn an evolution of the open-source Crow Box.

For some, leveraging the intelligence of animals is more appealing than programming drones which could do the same thing. A vision system mixed with a drone and a manipulator could fulfull the same function but animals are self-repairing and autonomous without our code. The irony of this project is that, although it’s probably fairly easy to train crows to recognize cigarette butts, the implementation hinges on having a vision system that can recognize the butts in order to properly train the crows in the first place.

If we had the time to train crows, it would definitely be to poop on cars that don’t signal for turns. Maybe some of these winged devices can be programmed to recognize lapses in traffic laws in exchange for some electrons.

Thank you, [jo_elektro], for the tip.