A bike-sharing startup run by USyd students is preparing to launch an on-campus trial of its new app, with their first fleet of 50 bicycles to hit Eastern Avenue as early as September.
Each Airbike bicycle will have a powerful lock which will use 3G to communicate with the company’s app, allowing the bikes to be hired for $1 per half hour with just a scan of the QR code on its frame.
Airbike CEO Angus Macdonald, a University of Sydney Economics student, came up with the idea while on a New Colombo scholarship in China, where bikes owned by companies like Ofo or Bluegogo can be hired in big cities in a similar way for as little as 1 yuan per ride.
“It was kind of a revolution there, but it wasn’t quite complete,” he said.
“There were things that hadn’t been thought together too well — theft was a big issue, and the locks failed very often.”
When he came back, Macdonald began working to develop a bikesharing system for Sydney.
“You have to do it differently in Sydney – China uses a 2G network and Australia’s 2G network is about to be switched off. So we had to pretty much remodel the entire system for Australia.”
He found the technical support he needed for the project in the father of a friend, ex-North Adelaide AFL player Terry Collins.
Collins is now the technical director of Airbike, and its main investor. His own company has specialised in geospatial location services and related software since 1993, and this kind of geotracking will underpin the app’s functions.
“We already have a number of apps that can track people, phones, other kinds of gadgets,” he said.
The geotracking aspect of the software is critical to Airbike’s product because it ensures the bicycles are evenly distributed across campus.
“If all the bikes ended up at Engineering and there were no bikes down at Economics, then some of them would have to be redistributed,” Macdonald explained. “We will use our user base to redistribute.”
The app will achieve this by offering free rides back from Engineering to Economics, for instance.
While the Airbike’s main purpose is to improve point-to-point transport, the team has also developed unique features that place great emphasis on cycling for leisure — the app will allow users to hire multiple bikes on one account.
“We also want people to use it socially — like five friends going from class to Courtyard together, so they can ride together and that’s actually part of the social occasion — just having a bit of fun on some bikes.”
As in every new, unregulated “sharing economy” industry, bikesharing services often find themselves “walking a line between doing what is right and doing what is legal”.
Macdonald cites the poor example set by China-based bikesharing company Bluegogo, which expanded into San Francisco earlier this year without city approval, only to announce in March that it was pulling all bicycles from the streets in the face of potential fines as regulation caught up.
Bluegogo recently announced its intention to move into Sydney — for the most part, the Airbike team are undaunted.
“As a local company, knowing the area and knowing how to distribute bikes specifically, I think that’s where our advantage lies,” said Macdonald.
Airbike currently exists in a tech field crowded with companies where users privacy has been a major concern. When asked about the potential privacy risks associated with tracking users data, Macdonald replied “We, as a company do not participate in tracking individuals besides to match their hardware with ours (is the phone that is trying to unlock the bicycle actually at the same place as bicycle?)”.
Airbike is one of the startups supported by the Business School’s Genesis program, and its plans to launch have been received well by the University.
If the USyd trial of Airbike goes well, they plan to expand their fleet to 2000 bicycles across Sydney’s CBD.
Students will be able to sign up for the trial when the Airbike app is released in August.