It’s silent, it costs less than 90 cents a day to run and it’s one of New Zealand’s most talked about agricultural innovations – the electric ag bike.
Indeed, Ubco’s zippy, lightweight two-wheel-drive machine is attracting increasing attention in Australia, too.
Two years ago this breakthrough in farm transport did not exist, except as a prototype, but it has quickly gained considerable momentum in NZ, and is appealing to rural markets in the US, UK and Australia.
About 750 units have been built, of which about 100 have sold in Australia in the past seven months.
Ubco (originally the Utility Bike Company) is basically a two-wheel computer, intelligently designed to be a farm or recreational runabout.
A 48 amp hour, 50-volt lithium-ion battery system runs noiseless 1.2 kilowatt motors in each wheel.
The bike will travel about 120 kilometres on one charge, but can also power farm tools ranging from electric drills to the mobile phone.
In fact, a smartphone is also used to monitor the Ubco’s (modest) maintenance needs and adjust its power performance, including traction control in slippery conditions, or to switch it between road and off-road running.
A global positioning system tracking app is also soon to be released.
Ubco bikes are proving handy for a host of low-cost farm sector uses, particularly because they are so quiet to use around livestock.
Lambing ewes, young cattle and Thoroughbred horses barely notice as the aluminium-framed, battery-powered step-through slips by.
“We’ve grown up with farming backgrounds and could see the possibilities of the electric bike concept for off-road use, but we’re a bit surprised at just how many market options have opened up,” said chief executive officer, Tim Allan, who is in the Ubco partnership with developers, Daryl Neal and Anthony Clyde.
Mr Allan said bikes had also sold into horticulture operations from vegetable cropping to tree crops and vineyards, while others were deployed as runabouts inside intensive livestock enterprises or by contractors unrolling or moving electric fencing for strip grazing.
The bike was also suited to national parkland managment, recreational tourism, hunting and search and rescue applications.
Australia Post is even evaluating the Ubco 2x2 as serious new era option for the “postie bike”.
Looking slightly like the 1970s Honda 90 step-through, which proved an early ag bike hit with Australian farmers, and postal workers, the Ubco weighs just 63 kilograms – about half as much as a conventional farm bike.
It is easy to manoeuvre for farmers of almost any age.
Within two months of our first container-load landing we’d sold out
Also enhancing its popularity, particularly with novice ag bike users, is the fact it has no clutch or gears to negotiate, and no drive chain or hot exhaust pipe to be wary of.
In full power mode it has a top speed of about 50 kilometres an hour, but in economy it throttles up to about 30km/h.
Although not as fast as most ag bikes on the open straight, it is easily capable of handling livestock work and rough terrain thanks to the individual wheel motors which deliver more traction than conventional motorbikes can muster, particularly in boggy conditions or on steep slopes.
“It’s interesting the quietness factor has also turned into a popular feature, not just from the livestock management point of view, but for the users themselves,” Mr Allan said.
“People genuinely appreciate the lack of noise when they’re out in the paddock – they’re much more aware of what else they can actually hear around them now.”
The 120km range limit had not deterred farmer inquiry as most primary producers were unlikely to travel as much as 100km a day on ag bikes or even four wheelers.
“The average distance travelled is more like 25km to 40km a day, and you simply plug it into a power point when the bike’s back in the shed for a few hours, or overnight,” he said.
A full re-charge takes about seven hours.
Product manager with Ubco’s Australian distributor, Daviesway, Brendan Johnson, said demand had “caught us on the hop, a bit”.
“Within two months of our first container-load landing we’d sold out, then most of our second shipment was pre-sold when it arrived, and now we have more orders for the next,” he said.
With about 18 dealer distributor points from Tasmania to Queensland, and a likely Western Australian dealer soon to sign up, the importer was finding broad farm sector interest, and now inner-city commuter demand, too.
The 2018 model sells in Australia at $8000 with on-road features, or $7500 for an unregistered farm version.
Numerous additional mounted features are also offered, including front and rear carry racks, panniers and shovel grip points.
Although built in China, many components have been designed and built in the US, Europe, Taiwan and NZ.
Ubco’s electric bike was first demonstrated as a concept unit at NZ’s national Fieldays in 2014 where Mr Allan was then a judge in the event’s innovation competition.
This month Mr Allan was back to collect the Fieldays international innovation award on Ubco’s behalf.
Prior to joining the business he founded product development company Locus Research, a guiding hand behind several agricultural innovation firms and products ranging from dog kennels to chainsaw injury protection garments, and an Australian-developed shower leak prevention system.
“We’re is still really a startup business at Ubco, but we have had a strong capital raising program to support our fast developing markets and production ideas,” he said.
The team was even giving thought to Ubco’s options in the four-wheel utility vehicle market, based on a similar concept of individual motors driving each wheel.
-Andrew Marshall travelled to New Zealand as a guest of NZ Trade and Enterprise
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