Publock — building a better bike lock


Four engineering seniors designed a simple solution that could protect you from bike theft


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Publock is a public biking system that would eliminate the cost of personal locks.

Photo by Evan Robinson


Four mechanical engineering students don’t want your bike to get stolen.

Engineering  seniors Alex Neier , Justin Starr , Joseph Polin and Joseph Hill created PubLock, a solution from theft and incorrect use of personal bike locking systems. Using a lock in the wrong way can leave a bike vulnerable to theft. PubLock is a senior design project, which engineers complete as a capstone to their education at Penn.

“The problem is actually motivated by some data from The Daily Pennsylvanian’s crime reports,” Starr said. “We found in a given month that there were 23 bike thefts, 43 percent of which were due to incorrect usage of personal locks.”

PubLock, essentially a public bike locking system, removes the expense of purchasing U-Locks or chain locks and eliminates the possibility of not securing the bike properly.

PubLock’s strength is its simplicity. A cyclist simply rolls the bike up to an available rack and aligns the frame with the rack. He then grabs the handle, pulls out the chain and inserts it in the locking bit. The handle is held in place by a magnet but does not lock until the owner uses a personal RFID card to “wake the lock up and activate our electronics.” Once secured, the handle cannot be pulled out by another RFID except the one used to lock it, Polin explained.

The team believed that this system was especially beneficial to the University because of the implementation of RFID technology occurring next year. “Theoretically, if Penn were to implement this idea, you could bike around with a Penn card and lock your bike up using a PennCard,” Hill said. RFID technology was used in Gregory to replace keys with PennCards, which function like hotel keys.

The team tested various ways to make the chain retract reliably. “We did fatigue testing and found that elastic waistband — which you have in your underwear — was the best material for that,” Hill said. Additionally, a steel cable is in place that prevents the chain from being pulled all the way out.

PubLock was created to be “really interchangeable and modular” so that any damage would be easily replaceable. Current estimates indicate that the baseline manufacturing costs would be about $150 per unit, if produced one hundred units at a time.

PubLock is not limited to Penn. Team members say they could sell it and RFID cards to cities, companies and bike share programs. “For bike share programs like Citi Bike, this could allow for much cheaper installation,” Neier said. “We think that they could have great use for them because you can use their bike with this system and it would be less costly.”

The team filed a provisional patent earlier this week with the help of Law School student Kevin Chung to protect the intellectual property of their system. While there are some patents filed for similar systems, there is currently no product on the market that fills the same role as PubLock, Polin said.

The team won the William K. Gemill Memorial Award for outstanding creativity at yesterday’s senior design presentation, and will compete in the All-SEAS competition on May 1 at the School of Engineering and Applied Science .

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