Tuesday, September 8, 2015

MISTER - MISTER - Update 1

Mikosza (top)
and Choromanski

Ollie Mikosza says a well-connected academic stole his PRT design. Guess who's winning.

©MMXV The PRT NewsCenter
We began corresponding with Olgierd "Ollie" Mikosza in 2006, shortly after "MISTER" (Metropolitan Individual System of Transportation on an Elevated Rail), his suspended (vehicle below the guideway) personal rapid transit concept, first came on the scene. With Heathrow Pods and the Masdar City PRT still four years off, Mikosza exuded confidence and optimism that his design would be the one to break through.

In an article in EV World earlier that year, in which Mikosza announced MISTER to the world, he reported already securing letters of intent from interested cities, and that his plans had been endorsed by academic and transportation experts. The engineering, he seemed to say, would be straightforward by comparison.
Artist conception of Mikosza's vehicle
The MISTER project did appear to move ahead with some speed: in mid-2006 a grant was announced from the Warsaw Technical University (Warsaw Polytechnic); in 2007 Mikosza made the rounds of TV news shows with a mockup of the MISTER pod.

By the end of 2007 he was competing for capital -- and publicity -- on Polish television's version of Shark Tank, making it all the way to the finals, in the end losing to the inventor of a new kind of eyeglasses.

MISTER seemed to be going places.

It was all heady stuff for Mikosza, who already seemed to have spent his life going places -- a native of Poland, trained as an electrical engineer, working in South Africa, Asia, and New Zealand (becoming a citizen of the latter), and spending time as a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He told a columnist for the New Zealand Sun Herald in 2010 that he got the idea for MISTER while sitting in California traffic. (goo.gl/fMfHEU)

But for all his efforts, Mikosza's program is about in the same place today as nine years ago. And he points the finger of responsibility at someone he had counted as a supporter.

The meeting

Ollie Mikosza says he first encountered Wlodzimierz Choromanski in December 2005, when he was giving a presentation on MISTER at a conference at the Pulaski Technical University in Radom. Mikosza remembers Professor Choromanski as being delighted with MISTER, and offered Mikosza support and help in promoting it to scientists and the government. (goo.gl/Wrarbp)

Mikosza probably couldn't believe his luck. By every indication Wlodzimierz Choromanski (who did not respond to inquiries when we began working on this story) is a brilliant and accomplished guy, a member of the Transport Faculty at the Polytechnic, specifically the head of the Department of Transportation Equipment Construction Theory (his most compelling invention is a stair-climbing wheelchair). And he appeared to love MISTER.

In a document dated April 2006, Choromanski declared enthusiastic support for MISTER, which he called "a new solution proposed by Mr. Olgierd Mikosza... which, and I am stating this with full conviction, may potentially revolutionize transportation systems in cities." (goo.gl/CgtVn7)

And the partnership seemed to produce results, quickly racking up agreements with a number of cities, official cooperation with the Polytechnic, and finally a grant of over 200,000 zlotys (today about $54,000) from that institution.

During this period Choromanski personally gave a presentation about MISTER at a Polytechnic seminar, utilizing a number of slides created by Mikosza (goo.gl/vxyOPz, Slide 8).

Choromanski and the Polytechnic also submitted MISTER to the government's Technology Initiative development fund.

Such were the heady days when MISTER seemed to be going like gangbusters.

In 2009 MISTER was awarded a $10M grant from the EU toward the costs of a test track in southern Poland, in the city of Opole, one of the cities with which MISTER had signed letters of agreement. But by then it had already gone to hell.

The turning

According to Mikosza, Choromanski had been copying key elements of his PRT design -- for in 2007 Choromanski had begun seeking funding for his own PRT design called Merkury. It also became known as Eco-Taxi and the punny 'Sitin.'

Sitin bore a striking resemblance to MISTER. Like MISTER it was a suspended system, and an illustration even gave it a similar goldenrod yellow paint job.

But Mikosza's main gripe was with Sitin's bogey, or drive unit. A key contention by Mikosza is that Sitin violated his patent application on MISTER's switch.

Switching 101

In rail transit, switching is how the vehicle gets from one line to another. Conventional train switches consist of movable rails installed at junctions; these function in the classic manner with which most people who have seen cartoons and movies are familiar.

Movable rail switches won't do for PRT. Under normal conditions a line of pods would approach a junction with only seconds separating them, or even less than a second. Some would take branch A, others would take branch B. Each pod would have to separately signal the switch to be in position A or B, the switch would have to move back and forth reliably, in time, and fully -- not stuck part-way between A and B. A movable section of rail might have to do this thousands of times a day; challenges of reliability and wear are obvious.

The challenges were so obvious that designers worked out a solution about five seconds after Donn Fichter finished writing the definition of PRT. The method varies according to vendor but, basically, each vehicle guides itself through the junction. The granddaddy PRTs at West Virginia University do it by feeling their way along guiderails; the pods at Heathrow and Masdar steer like cars.

The other method of switching is to grab one side of the guideway to take branch A, or the other side to take branch B. In 1968 the Aerospace Corporation scale model PRT used electromagnets to do the grabbing. Other companies' designs employ pivoting or hinged arms with wheels on the ends, which engage guides on the inside of the guideway at junctions; notable examples in this group include Taxi 2000 and Vectus/SkyCube.

Patently "idiotic"

MISTER switches using a clever take on the grab method. When a MISTER vehicle on branch A comes to a junction with branch B, the drive unit's set of wheels on the B side engage with that branch, and the set of wheels still on branch A are lifted away, disengaging. The drive unit has transitioned smoothly to the other branch.

Mikosza calls this 'contactless' switching, and thought it to be so innovative that he filed an application with Poland's patent authority in 2005.

A tale of two switches
Sitin's switch basically operates the same way as MISTER's (at least the original version of Sitin did, more on this later), except that on the Sitin drive unit, one set of wheels are above the other set.  Mikosza derides this vertical orientation, calling it "idiotic," for a couple of reasons, but the more visible one is that the drive unit would have to be nearly 10 feet tall, and therefore so would the guideway.

Even so, Mikosza complained to the patent authority that Sitin's switch infringed on his patent application, in that any final configuration of MISTER's drive unit could switch by engaging any branch that is adjacent, whether vertical, horizontal or in between. According to Mikosza, Choromanski countered that the illustrations in MISTER's patent application depict only horizontal engagement. Mikosza says those illustrations were merely examples, and even got a patent attorney to submit an opinion that Sitin was a copy of MISTER.  But the authorities agreed with Choromanski -- who then received a patent for a vertical contactless switch (#PL210396B1). Mikosza's original application is still pending.

Mikosza says Choromanski had moved to poison the well against MISTER prior to the patent fight, despite the earlier written and verbal support. He says that Choromanski used his connections in academic, scientific and government circles to block MISTER from receiving funding and forming partnerships.

Also according to Mikosza, Choromanski backtracked on his earlier glowing endorsement, by telling Opole officials/media MISTER wasn't worth anything and making personal imprecations against Mikosza.

In an amusing 2007 episode, a person in an online forum posted attacks on MISTER's plans for Opole. Although the commenter was posting anonymously, Mikosza says he was able to trace the IP address back to Choromanski's department server at the Polytechnic.

MISTER had been put forward for funding from the government's technology development fund. But by 2009 government co-financing ended up with Choromanski's program -- now called Eco-Mobility (also the name of the branding strategy for a number of mobility technologies being developed at the Polytechnic). Mikosza learned about it when he read the announcement in the press; the article included photos and illustrations of MISTER, misidentified or misrepresented as Eco-Mobility.

But Eco-Mobility was to undergo changes in the next five years. These amounted to much more than a makeover.

Choromanski and the Eco-Mobility vehicle
at 2014 launch event.
A publicity push by the Polytechnic in 2014 about Eco-Mobility (goo.gl/t7m2nw) was striking in how unlike MISTER the former Sitin had become, the most obvious difference being that it had become a supported PRT (vehicle on top of guideway).

Furthermore, a video of Eco-Mobility's drive unit on a test track showed its switching mechanism now used the hinged-arms 'grab' approach (goo.gl/Pssd8U).  Gone was the vertical contactless switch, won at (presumably) great cost in the patent battle with Mikosza.  One wonders what that fight -- as well as the well-poisoning -- was all about.

Unless the patent fight was just a strategy in a war to undermine MISTER, and the vertical switch was just a tactic. Eco-Mobility is now the only PRT effort in Poland -- Mikosza is now based in New Zealand.

Different directions

The fortunes of MISTER and Eco-Mobility have diverged in the last few years.

Choromanski's monograph,
Eco-Mobility on the cover
Choromanski continues to work on PRT at the Polytechnic, this year publishing a monograph, Systemy Transportowe PRT. The wider Eco-Mobility brand now includes an 'eco-car,' an exoskeleton and prostheses for people with physical challenges, a lever-propelled wheelchair, and the stairclimbing wheelchair.  He is on the preliminary list of presenters at the Podcar City 9 conference to be held in Mountain View, California, November 4-6, 2015. Update 1: Choromanski is on the conference agenda for Nov. 6. 

MISTER changed its name to Metrino in 2014. We still get the periodic email from Mikosza, describing Choromanski with choice adjectives when the subject comes up.  From his Auckland headquarters, Mikosza bounces around the world seeking media exposure, financing and development deals in such places as Southeast Asia, India, and Brazil. But the first installation -- and capital -- continues to prove elusive. 

1 comment:

  1. A very sad story; thanks for bringing it to us. I have always been a fan of MISTER/Metrino and thought it particularly appropriate for deployment in my town, someday. I hope the approach survives, so that that particular vision may eventually be realized in my neighborhood. -James Merritt (Santa Cruz CA)