— By Keri Troutman
Control Systems Group Leader Alan Biocca has worked at Berkeley Lab for the past 36 years, and he actually has one of his hobbies to thank for landing him his first job here. Back in 1978, it was a fellow HAM radio enthusiast who introduced Biocca, then a UC Berkeley undergrad, around at the Lab. Soon he was hired to work in the Lab’s engineering division. He went on to finish his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and then to complete a graduate degree in computer science while employed at the Lab, moving to the ALS soon after it opened in 1992. Biocca has worked on some exciting projects at work—including the Keck telescope and the Gammasphere project—and in his free time, where he designs electric bikes and Ham radio antenna launchers.
Biocca has built four electric bicycles (or “e-bikes”), which were inspired by and tested on his daily commute— 13 miles from El Sobrante along San Pablo Dam Road and through Tilden Park. The ride involves climbing 1200 feet in elevation on the way in, mostly up Centennial Drive in Berkeley.
“I needed a motor that’s capable of the gradient and a battery that’s capable of the distance,” Biocca says. “I wanted something that would go up the hills and something with sturdier tires that could take the bad roads around here.”
There are a lot of commercially available e-bikes nowadays, but they typically don’t put a lot of battery capacity in them, says Biocca. So for his latest e-bike, the most capable of all four he’s built, Biocca started with a frame kit from Croatia and then bought custom parts from all over the world. He says his e-bike’s success was ultimately based on the online networking he did with fellow enthusiasts—he learned a lot and ended up meeting another local bicyclist with the same frame he has who offered to help him build his.
Biocca’s current e-bike is definitely a custom job—the frame was designed for carrying batteries with covers over the lithium polymer RC batteries and wiring, using mountain bike front suspension forks and rear suspension shock to soak up potholes. Biocca added a brushless DC hubmotor in the rear wheel controlled by a sinewave motor controller. This was combined with tough moped tires to handle daily commuting through the glass and debris in the bike lanes. The result is a commuting e-bike that can handle the roads and hills, get to work reliably and allow as much pedaling as the rider wants to contribute.
Biocca did all his own wiring and electronics design and made his own battery pack for his e-bike. It’s functioning wonderfully, but continues to be a work in progress. Lately he’s been experimenting with controllers, which is the part that converts energy from battery to motor. Going up Centennial Drive is tough on controllers; he’s now gone through four different ones. It’s the kind of thing that sounds frustrating, but for Biocca it’s an opportunity to fine-tune his engineering, which he enjoys.
It’s this same fine-tuning and love of engineering that his driven Biocca’s interest in HAM radio and his somewhat recent business of selling Ham radio antenna launchers. Biocca has been interested with electronics and radio since he was in the fourth grade, when a neighborhood telephone company engineer taught him a few tricks of the trade. He got his novice HAM license at age twelve and continued to enjoy HAM radio throughout high school and college. He likens the technology to early cell phones (but bigger and nerdier).
He’d always enjoyed taking part in the American Radio Relay League’s yearly “Field Day,” where enthusiasts set up outside of their normal stations and operate for a weekend. For Alan’s group it’s in the Sierras where they camp, set up their equipment and send messages, trade tips, and check out what’s new. Biocca and his fellow HAM radio friends had always liked to put their radio antennas up in trees, but getting them there was problematic—they usually relied on archery, but never found anything to be very safe or accurate.
So Biocca took on the challenge and designed a small, portable antenna-launching system that consists of piping, fishing reel, compressed air, and a tennis ball. It can launch a tennis ball (with a line attached) 150 feet straight up. Other HAM radio users were so enthused that Biocca set up a website to sell parts to them. But people kept asking for a full kit, and then for a pre-assembled antenna launcher ready to use. Eventually, it turned into a little side business and Biocca estimates he’s now sold more than 800 since 2002.
“Whether you’re sending radio signals thousands of miles or powering an electric bicycle up a steep hill, electronics and software make a great combination,” says Biocca. “It’s also fantastic that the Internet gives additional opportunities to learn, teach, collaborate, make, and share your inventions worldwide.”