Canadian teenager Ben Gulak got a bit of a head start on his training in mechanical engineering. As an incoming freshman in the MIT Class of 2012, he's already been featured on the cover of Popular Science magazine for having come up with one of the year's top 10 inventions.
In fact, his was number one.
Gulak, who is just 18, will also be a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno later this month, demonstrating his unique electric unicycle-like vehicle. He has been working on the project for two years, initially as a science fair project that made it all the way to second place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (where he also won a special award for the project with the most marketability).
Gulak first applied to MIT last year, but was waitlisted and decided to take a year off rather than settle for another school. So he spent the intervening year working on his invention--designed to be a practical commuting vehicle for dense urban areas--before applying again to MIT.
"The perspective that MIT brings to engineering is really unique," he says. "I really like the experience that MIT brings to engineering, especially the hands-on approach."
The inspiration for the cycle came when Gulak visited China in 2006 and was amazed at the overwhelming pollution that completely blocked the view of the surrounding country as his airplane came in for landing. He realized that much of that smog was coming from the thousands of motor scooters whizzing through the streets and figured that there had to be a better way.
The design he came up with has two wheels mounted side by side, very close together, and powered by electric motors. A computerized control system keeps the vehicle balanced, in a system similar to the Segway personal transporter. But unlike that vehicle, which is ridden in a standing position and is not considered a street vehicle, Gulak's "Uno" is ridden like a motorcycle and designed for ordinary roads.
Operating the Uno is so simple that it requires no controls at all. There is only an on-off switch. Once it's on, the driver accelerates by leaning forward, stops by leaning back, and steers by leaning to the side. By sitting upright, the driver can balance in one spot.
Gulak, who grew up just outside Toronto, has been tinkering most of his life. He started working with machine tools with his grandfather, who had a fully equipped machine shop in his house, "as early as I can remember, certainly by the time I was 5," he says. When his grandfather died in 2004, Gulak inherited all the equipment. "I only wish he was here now, for all the things that are going on," he says. "The more I get into engineering, the more I miss him."
Gulak knows that despite his achievements so far, he still has a lot to learn, and that's why he was determined to study at MIT, where he plans to take a dual major in mechanical engineering and business. But he's not abandoning his pet project: He has already formed a company to develop the Uno, set up a web site and filed for patents in several countries (the United States, Canada and the European Union for starters). And as a result of the recent publicity he has already started to get calls from "quite a few investors," some able to provide production facilities for the vehicle.
When he found out Jay Leno wanted him on his show, Gulak rushed to complete a whole new version of his prototype bike, incorporating several new features in time to demonstrate it on the program.
Why bother with school with such business prospects already in front of him? Gulak takes the long view. "I think the Uno has a lot of possibilities, and people really seem to like it. The reaction from the public and the press has been quite overwhelming. However, I really wouldn't want to jeopardize my future or limit my options by just going ahead without getting a degree. So I'm very committed to coming in the fall--MIT has a lot to offer and I'm really looking forward to it.
"The Uno has taught me how important it is to have a deep and varied knowledge base and a solid grounding in all the basic engineering principles," he says. "When I was working on the bike, much of what I learned came through through trial and error, so I know first hand the value and importance of increasing my knowledge base through education."