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What is a six-axis IMU, and why do high-end bikes have it?

Let’s take a closer look at this high-tech feature.

What is a six-axis IMU, and why do high-end bikes have it?

These days, technology is the name of the game when it comes to performance-oriented motorcycles. Just a decade ago, the notion of having safety features such as ABS on a beginner-friendly motorcycle was reserved for the most premium machines. These days, even affordable scooters like the Yamaha NMAX are outfitted with this safety feature. Naturally, the trickling down of tech features from high-end machines down to mass-market models leaves a lot of room for even more innovation when it comes to bikes in the upper echelons of performance.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and we find motorcycles equipped with technological advancements we could only dream of some ten years ago. Motorcycles like the BMW S 1000 RR feature gyroscopic sensors which unlock a whole host of sophisticated rider aids such as cornering ABS, traction control, and wheelie control. Today, let’s take a closer look at the brain of today’s performance-oriented rider aids, the six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), and see just how awesome it has made the modern-day crop of performance machines.

What is it?

What is a six-axis IMU, and why do high-end bikes have it?

As sophisticated as it seems, an IMU, or inertial measurement unit, is something every single person with a smartphone has already experienced. Those of you who play mobile games that require you to tilt your phone, or, simply swapped between landscape and portrait orientation by rotating your phone have already experienced the benefits of an IMU. From an electronics point of view, an IMU is basically an electronic device which measures a certain object’s position relative to the space surrounding it. To do so, it makes use of a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and sometimes even magnetometers, on ultra complex setups.

When it comes to motorcycles, think of your bike as a giant smartphone. The IMU is able to distinguish the bike’s position across six axes—leftward lean, rightward lean, forward pitch, rearward pitch, leftwar yaw, and rightward yaw. Is your nose bleeding yet? No worries, it’s a lot simpler than you think. So leftward and rightward lean is simple. It’s basically the banking angle of your bike when you’re taking a corner. Forward and rearward pitch are what happens to your bike when abruptly coming to a stop, say, a stoppie; or rapid acceleration, say, a wheelie. Lastly, yaw refers to the oscillation of the bike in relation to the direction it is going (hint: slide control). Now, the IMU’s job is to take note of all this data and send it to the ECU which thereby commands the rider aids to do their respective jobs.

What features does it unlock?

What is a six-axis IMU, and why do high-end bikes have it?

When it comes to rider aids, a six-axis IMU unlocks a whole host of features which would otherwise be impossible to execute. Simpler, more affordable bikes have rudimentary ABS and traction control systems that make use of nothing but wheel-speed sensors. With an IMU, ABS and traction control can be optimized depending on the behavior of the motorcycle. As such, features like cornering ABS and traction control can be featured on IMU-equipped bikes. The IMU allows the ECU to calculate even finer inputs to the electronic assists, further optimizing their performance. 

Other features that can be enhanced by an IMU are fun, performance-oriented aids such as wheelie control, which relies heavily on rearward pitch sensors to determine just how much throttle to cut back as the front end begins to rise. Meanwhile, slide-control, similar to what we find in the Ducati Panigale V4 S, makes use of yaw sensors to keep the bike stable as it gradually slides into a corner. Other nifty features such as cornering lights can also be incorporated into the sophisticated tech web brought about by an IMU. Bikes like the MV Agusta Brutale 1000 even get a fancy full-color display which shows the bikes realtime lean angle. 

Why do I need it?

What is a six-axis IMU, and why do high-end bikes have it?

The answer to the question of whether or not you really need it really depends on the type of riding you’re doing. If you're just riding around town, then naturally, you don’t really need all the sophisticated rider aids made available by an IMU-equipped machine. In the racing environment, however, it’s clear to see where the benefits come in. Most bikes that feature this setup produce close to, if not upwards of 200 horsepower. As such, these safety features keep tabs on all that power, and make an otherwise unrideable machine manageable even to novice and intermediate riders. Of course, you can’t deny how cool it is to know that the bike you’re riding is capable of doing so much more than you, as a rider, are capable of. All these electronic aids on high-power motorcycles not only enhance their overall performance, but increase their level of safety, as well. 

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