Inboard Technology recently unveiled its M1 Electric Skateboard, which sets itself apart from similar products by focusing on style, functionality, and connectivity. You read that right – this is an IoT skateboard, and it has the potential change the way people look at transportation. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Inboard’s co-founder and CEO, Ryan Evans. He shared with us the inspiration for the M1 and how the team went from idea to finished product.
Explain a little bit about Inboard. What was the genesis of the company?
Everyone’s been in the situation, whether walking on a college campus or a mall, or a live music event, when you just want a ride. My friend Theo (Theo Cerboneschi, Inboard’s CTO and co-founder), felt this way and actually did something about it. At university his bike was stolen three weeks in a row from a bike rack right outside of his classroom. To prevent this, he wanted something he could take inside with him. In addition to being portable, he wanted it to be fun, lightweight, and convenient. He started by taking drone motors and applying them to skateboards. About a year later, and after about five prototypes, he had something that was really cool. He and I would get mobbed wherever we went by people just wanting to buy them. This is when we knew we had a viable business here.
How did you guys meet?
Theo was a team rider for Europe and France, and I was a team rider for the US. We met through our love of action sports. He also has a background in mechatronics, electronics, and mechanical engineering.
How big is Inboard now?
We’re 15 people, so still a startup. We have a huge focus on engineering, about half of our team is made up of engineers and the rest is sales, operations, and marketing. When we started our Kickstarter campaign it was the two of us and one other person, our designer, Paige. So we’re pretty thrilled with how scrappy we are.
So how long did it take to go from Idea to the prototype M1?
From idea to first working prototype was about 12 to 14 months. Then we spent the last 14 months bringing it from prototype to production quality.
Tell me a little about the design process? What lessons did you learn from the first few ideas that carried over into the final product?
If you look at the product, one thing that gets people really excited is the design aesthetics; how minimalistic it is and how much it really looks like a skateboard. Coming from our backgrounds in action sports, we knew for something to be really adopted by the mass market it needs to get that core group of influencers excited. We knew the products that were out there just didn’t look cool. We looked to companies like Apple and Tesla, and even Dyson, that make things look cool. So we wanted to design something that felt like riding a regular skateboard, that gliding feeling, but also be able to have motors in the wheels and swappable batteries. Some of the elements we were familiar with as riders were missing from the current offerings.
So, industrial design sounds like a big focus to make something that people would want to carry around with them. Were there any challenges you didn’t anticipate?
The fact that we wanted to make an electric skateboard that at its thickest point was 24mm was a challenge. The only commercially available motor controller at that time was 44mm tall, so using off-the-shelf components wasn’t an option. The consequence of our decision to make design aesthetics a priority really dictated the rest of the course of development. We had to design our own custom electronics, the motor control, the battery pack, and everything else. I don’t think they were unforeseen, but it was a conscious decision to go for the top-tier design aesthetic and integration. A huge benefit for us is that we designed the entire drive frame, giving us the ability to control all the performance parameters of the product.
Are there plans to expand beyond the M1?
That’s the most exciting thing about what we’ve done. Because we focused on really clean design and we built our own electronics, we were able to perfect the performance. We now can look at the motor controller and battery as a platform. You can easily take this and put it into other form factors.
Was the success of the Kickstarter campaign a surprise?
As with all crowdsourcing campaigns you hope for the best and plan for the worst. The Kickstarter platform has become the best way to launch a product. For Kickstarter, it’s about all the little details, the things to button up. Your brand isn’t just a logo, its how you interact with customers and this was a great trial for that.
Tell me about some of the components, starting with the remote.
We looked at all the remotes on the market and they all had lanyards that went around your wrist. We didn’t want lanyards, they felt dated. So we set out to design a remote that functions with the rider. It wraps around your finger so you can open and close your hand. Some companies are using a slider, where it moves back and forth. Other companies use a wheel, where after you push it forward the finger slips and you have to re-grip it every once in a while. We looked at the most common interfaces for someone controlling something and we landed on video game joysticks. The only difference is we restrict it to just forwards and backwards. Feedback has been great. It’s very precise and natural.
Explain the connectivity between the remote and the skateboard.
We’re using Bluetooth with low-energy functionality. Having a robust, reliable connection is the most important thing. If you’re riding on flat ground and you need to stop, but can’t because your Bluetooth signal drops, you’ve got a dangerous situation. We didn’t want to skimp on any of our components. We realized that was the core of what would make us successful and it was worth the work that went into creating relationships with top tier suppliers to make it happen.
How far can you go on one charge?
Seven to 10 miles, which depending on how fast you’re going might be 25 minutes to more than an hour.
Is there a smart device involved in the connection between the skateboard and the remote?
We have the Bluetooth on the remote, which is communicating with the motor controller on the board. And you can get data sent to your iPhone. So if you have an iPhone, you can see all the data, including battery level and range.
When you set out on this project did you realize that connectivity would be such a critical factor?
We always knew it would be important, but we didn’t realize how critically important it would be to bring so many other facets together. You look at it, and a skateboard that traditionally is kind of dumb can now have accelerometers and gyroscopes, and can map everything from the terrain to the quality of the street you’re on. If you ride through Austin and hit a pothole, the accelerometer can map that. Then I ride through 15 minutes later, I get a notification to watch out for it. It’s important for us to not only communicate with the product directly but also with the cloud to map routes and increase efficiency. Our vision is to reshape how we navigate urban environments.
Can you use the M1 without any power, like a traditional skateboard?
In designing our motor, we were able to design it to get rid of all cogging, which is when a magnet skips the sensor. It rolls like a normal skateboard. We also have regenerative braking, so when you’re braking going down a hill you’re also recharging the battery. Most EVs can do this with about 15 percent efficiency, and we’re doing round 30-40 percent.
Can you tell me a little about how Silicon Labs came to be part of this project?
We’re a startup and while we have a great team of engineers, it isn’t like coming from a big company where you have a massive support system. Inboard relies heavily on vendors for helping us develop our products. When we’re selecting people to work with it’s not so much about test and cost, but choosing a long-term, reliable partner. For us it’s making sure we have good support, good documentation, insight, and the ability to call support and get an issue fixed quickly. Having vendors that will really take their time with you and maybe hold your hand a little bit really gives you the confidence to take things to the next level.
We use the BLE113 Bluetooth module, both in the remote and in the board. We had great support from you guys. We had one of your guys in Brazil spend about an hour with our electrical engineer going through everything at a deep level and helping us get the Bluetooth module on the motor controller to communicate with not only with the remote, but the iPhone.
One of our competitors was having trouble because their Bluetooth connections were dropping in locations all over the world. They started a Google Map and dropped pins at all the locations where customers should be careful because they could lose control of the product. We’ve taken our board and a remote with a BLE113 module and we’ve gone to all of the places where they were losing connections in San Francisco. We’ve never lost a connection. Out of the box it’s better because we chose a better partner; for us that’s a huge win.
Where do you see the future of IoT Heading?
It’s interesting. We changed pretty quickly from Inboard Action Sports to Inboard Technology because what we are doing here is applicable in everything from automotive to elderly care. We don’t fit the normal box of smart home application, but we have a product that maps streets, detects road conditions, and it’s happening without the user even realizing it. That’s the most exciting thing about the IoT space; two years ago everything was screaming ‘this is iot’ but now it’s in the background.