thought about cramming a huge amount of system information into a
relatively tight space as a string of geek-expressionist sound bites,
but that wouldn't even begin to answer the "What's this All About?"
question. Instead, I want to talk about what REALLY matters -- the
mad, obsessive technopassion that turns seemingly ordinary people into
hams and hobbyists... and what happens when you let it completely take
over your life.
And I do mean completely...
On the surface, what we have here is a pair of high-tech adventure platforms, the result of 17 years of nonstop focus, the contributions of hundreds of sponsors, and volunteer engineering wizardry from some of the most amazing minds in industry. The level of complexity in these machines is mind-numbing, but the motives behind them are exquisitely simple: freedom, adventure, discovery, and a twisted fascination with mobile wireless connectivity.
I'm going to spare you the board-by-board analysis of an infinitely reconfigurable mobile network architecture, the amusing interplay of too many closely spaced antennas with a marginal counterpoise that varies with conditions, the layering of a browser-flavored linux front end on top of a cluster of microcontrollers and sensors, and even the mad tail-chasing control theory that drives an adaptive self-optimizing solar thruster management system. We'll touch on all that, but the real subject is geek passion... the stuff you FEEL in your core when you stand in front of a vendor booth at a hamfest or trade show and experience heart-pounding techno-lust. I know you know what I'm talking about, or you wouldn't still be here...
(Oh, don't worry. Before this is all over, I'll point you to enough
technical information to scratch the itch, and even give you a way to
pitch in if you're so inclined.)
The Prehistory of a Nomad
It began in Kentucky in the early '60s: I was a ham radio operator known as WN4KSW, a skinny burr-headed 13-year-old prisoner of school, isolated in a cultural drought. I was theoretically a smart little bugger, according to test scores, yet I kept hearing that I had attitude problems and wasn't working up to my potential. With the exception of science fairs, my academic career was disappointing to authority figures. I didn't care: I had a secret life! School received the minimum attention required, which wasn't much. My real life was far too important to dilute with homework: since the age of 8, I had been obsessed with electronics, my lab, and the vague notion that if I prowled the magical world of electronic surplus with enough finesse, I might even be able to cobble together a computer with a few thousand 12AU7's and an air conditioner. I amused myself with microphones in the ductwork and a phone line routed through an old black-crackle 19" rack, listening to domestic goings-on via an 8-ohm primary looped around the lab and an amplified loopstick on my headphones. I fancied a girl up the street when I was way too young to know why, and gave her a walkie-talkie so we could lie under the covers and giggle to each other.... and I struck an uneasy balance of power with neighborhood rednecks-in-training by countering their harassment with a high-voltage "Tickle Stick" connected to parallel squirt guns loaded with saltwater.
Empowering stuff indeed, but most seductive of all was radio... for it connected me to the Outside.
It's like a flashback now, recalling the chirpy CW of my 50C5 crystal oscillator and the magical noises emanating from the Star Roamer... as well as the Heaths and Hammarlunds that followed. Other people, other tongues, strange sideband squawks, blokes on marine radiotelephone saying "I bloody miss you," political realities and cultural attitudes utterly unlike the Huntley-Brinkley Report that invariably accompanied dinner. I spent years gazing through this electronic window and building my tools; like the railroad tracks that passed near my house, radio became deeply symbolic of escape and movement. My physical adventures were confined to rural bike hikes; in my head, I could cruise the universe with a skyhook and a suitably powerful collection of instruments ablaze with Nixies, slide rule dials, dancing D'Arsonvals, and round green CRT's. Years passed. Adventures happened; technology went deliciously berserk. I dabbled in careers, started a microcomputer consulting business called Cybertronics after designing and building an 8008 system in 1974, wrote technical articles and a few books, and pulled all nighters of coffee-wired 8-bit hacking around every seductive new gizmological marvel. But through it all, one image kept coming back to me: an assemblage of communication and computing equipment symbolic of freedom... a toolset for escape. Thus it was only natural, when at last in 1983 the first tentative network infrastructure was in place, that I would trash my suburban lifestyle and take off across America on a recumbent bicycle dubbed Winnebiko... carrying a solar-powered computer through which I could connect to CompuServe from pay phones at an astonishing 300 baud.
had just invented technomadics.
Winnebiko and BEHEMOTH
became a merger of passion and technology, art and engineering. I was
fortunate enough to become a public symbol of network-enabled freedom,
and sponsors began donating the equipment and workspace to create new
versions of the bike. Volunteers jumped on board, the media maintained
an unrelenting thirst for stories, and I even got into the
once-unthinkable public speaking business. Despite chronic lifelong
bad work habits, I was learning to survive on the spinoffs of play.
From 1983 through 1991, I covered 17,000 miles on three versions of the bike, actually living on the road for about 3.5 of those years and spending the rest of the time in various labs building machines, holed up writing articles, or rumbling around the US under diesel power on speaking tours. Many of my published tales were written on a binary handlebar keyboard while pedaling the coasts; others were pounded into a laptop in the confines of my tent, consuming the day's stored solar energy.
the final incarnation of the bike, was a 3-year Silicon Valley
development project -- an all-out effort to integrate every geek toy
imaginable into a single system. The integration wasn't quite as
complete as I had hoped and it was far too heavy, but the project did
lay the groundwork for the Microship project to follow: a huge
collection of diverse resources, each too dumb to be conventionally
networked, all living in harmony under the umbrella of a processor and
an array of crosspoint switches. The result of this approach is a
coordinated toolset that feels like a single system, rendering a near
infinite variety of bizarre applications trivial to implement.
course, BEHEMOTH was also a strange bicycle. At 580 pounds fully loaded
(plus me), the name was apropos even without its acronymic coding: "Big
Electronic Human-Energized Machine... Only Too Heavy." A 105-speed
transmission helped me schlep it over mountains, pneumatically-deployed
landing gear kept me upright in the granny gear, 72 watts of solar
panels on the trailer ran everything except the wheels, a Qualcomm
OmniTRACS terminal on the stern linked me to the Net, a heads-up
display kept my right eye busy with a PC while my left gazed at the
console Macintosh, ultrasonic sensors in the helmet converted head
pitch and yaw into mouse movements, and binary chord keyboards in the
handlebars let me yak contentedly to any of the target processors or
chat live on packet while pedaling along.
ham shack was a story in itself. Mounted behind a fold-down door in the
bicycle trailer, it consisted of an Icom 725 for HF, the Yaesu 290/790
multimode pair for VHF/UHF and satellite operation, an AEA ATV rig,
Bencher paddle, keyer, audio filters, antenna tuner, preamps, and so
on. A folding dipole made from a pair of Outbackers on an extendible
fiberglass pole made an amazingly effective portable HF antenna, and
Larsen whips took care of the rest.
in all, BEHEMOTH was a fun bike... but there was one slight problem. I
had already been there! Returning to the road in 1991 was, despite
some delicious mini-adventures, a letdown: after 16,000 miles on
previous versions there were few surprises lurking in the small towns
and back roads of America. I started gazing at every waterway with a
sense of longing... weary of the noise and danger of asphalt.
The Microship Project is Born
Microship project began with almost primal simplicity as I pedaled
north along Lake Michigan in eastern Wisconsin... if I could have
wrapped a fiberglass hull around BEHEMOTH and pedaled 80 miles across
the lake instead of huffing all the way up and around, I would have
done so on the spot. But the bike was too heavy for such silly ideas,
not to mention my on-board suite of non-seaworthy electronics that
would, speaking optimistically, last about a day in even a freshwater
shortly thereafter, while wandering the US in the Mothership on a
speaking tour, a friend turned me on to sea kayaking and gave my
unfocused water-fantasies shape and direction. In early 1992, I
announced the new project on the Net, initially naming the
computerized kayak LEVIATHAN to echo the acronymic moniker of
bike. Over the next year, as I continued hauling BEHEMOTH between gigs
and TV appearances, my thoughts were far away... layering communication
and control systems onto a kayak... or gee, maybe a catamaran built of
two... or gosh, possibly even a trimaran built of three! Hmmm....
had no clue at the time that I was about to undertake 8 dedicated and
expensive years of system design and redesign, fiberglass fabrication,
hydraulics engineering, Perl coding, changes of fundamental direction,
establishing a succession of labs up and down the West Coast,
developing and maintaining over 150 sponsor relationships, constant
questing for volunteers, and the most expensive (and educational)
project of my life. It's a good thing I didn't know this: it would
have been intimidating enough to squelch the whole project.
spare you the intermediate stages; suffice it to say that the machines
called Microships now in our Camano Island lab did not spring
fully-formed from the compost of my imagination. Along the way I went
through extensive nautical learning curves, in the process championing
and then discarding dozens of designs... including one based on a
30-foot cruising-scale folding tri that kept me distracted for two
years. But technomadness prevailed.
The whole objective here is to build a pair of human-scale amphibian boatlets since my partner and I would kill each other if we tried to coexist in one! Each boat (Wordplay and Songline) needs multiple independent modes of propulsion -- pedal, solar, and sail -- and must accommodate pressurized control consoles to protect the gizmology that keeps us simultaneously amused and connected. The center hulls are canoes -- kevlar Wenonah Odysseys -- with extensive retrofitting to handle the stresses of a rotating 93 square foot sailrig and forward-angled daggerboard, with bulkheads added at the crossbeams, hatches at both ends, added arch structures, anchoring fixtures, hydraulically controlled retractable rudders, and endlessly complex deck details. A pedal drive unit allows human-powered operation at about 4 knots, and a electric thruster powered by a huge folding 480-watt foam-core solar array allows cruising on photon power.
of the more challenging design problems was meeting the fundamental
requirement for unassisted haulout and land transport... without
having some noisy truck and trailer following us around for years.
Lightweight canoes and kayaks can be portaged; trailer sailors can be
trailered; yachts can be used as residences. But what does a traveling
couple do with a pair of 600-pound folding trimarans at the end of the
Well, we can drop anchor and sleep aboard in the coffin-like confines of the hulls, but it's a spartan existence. More often, we'll just pull a few levers, deploying our landing gear, and trundle out of the water like the strange amphibian creatures we are. The struts on my boat involved over a year of full-time development work, and include hydraulic controls, elastomeric shock absorbers that can handle 4G shock loads, Ackerman steering geometry, and tuck-away retractability from the cockpit like the landing gear of a fighter jet.
Absurd? How many times have you let your fantasies run away with you
and imagined some mad machine, ultimate hamshack, or bizarre mobile
contraption... a creation that expresses your passion without such
mundane constraints as cost or fabrication time? The beauty of turning
a passion into a career is that suddenly, such mad notions become
completely reasonable... or at the very least a justifiable way to
spend your life.
Under the Hood
OK, so we have these retrofitted canoes that have morphed radically into amphibian folding solar trimarans with auxiliary burrito-and-wind propulsion.
being geeks who thrive on ham radio, wireless data links, massive
computing power, and amusing toys, the next step is obvious. A
pressurized folding console (with a dedicated processor just keeping
the nasties out and monitoring the internal environment) contains a
tightly-packed assemblage of goodies... but immediately we run into a
huge and potentially daunting design problem. How do you take a very
wide range of standalone systems -- ham equipment, speech and music
synthesizers, cellular and satellite phones, nav and environmental
sensors, dedicated controllers, marine radio, and so on -- and present
them as an integrated environment that can fit on a single control
console? In a lab, it would be easy to just rackmount the whole
mess... but in a Microship, there's only about 9" of console height
between pedaling legs and the pilot's line of sight across the bow!
The core of the machine has come to be known as Grand Central Station -- a trio of crosspoint networks controlled by a New Micros 68HC11 board running FORTH. The first section is audio... 32 inputs and 32 outputs, with up to 8 simultaneous connections among any combination, invoked by a simple command. A similar system handles 16 video sources and 8 video sinks... and a third unit allows any of 32 random RS-232 serial devices to yak back and forth with any other (complete with automatic polarity detection so I never again have to swap pins 2 and 3!). In a similar vein, a bank of solid state relays allows power to be selectively applied anywhere, and a passel of digital and analog inputs cover just about any sensor need including a huge amount of internal status monitoring and a suite of environmental water- and air-quality channels.
may sound like overkill in a canoe, but look at what this does for us!
When anything can be connected to anything under software control,
every widget reduces to a set of addresses. The Icom 706 ham rig? It's
a serial port, a pair of audio channels, a power-control bit, and a PTT
bit. Globalstar satellite phone? A couple of serial ports and more
audio. Packet TNC? More of the same. Compass, wind sensor, and other
environmental black boxes? Just incoming serial streams. Dedicated
systems such as solar peak power trackers and video turret control?
Simple bidirectional ports. The processor that sits on top of all this
-- an I/O-rich hacked laptop running Debian GNU/Linux -- has a passel
of code modules (written in Perl) that take care of issuing the various
connect commands, databasing incoming time- and location-stamped sensor
info, sending telemetry to our public server, creating display widgets
on the console... well, you get the idea. Everything on board, thanks
Grand Central Station, has become the moral equivalent of code, and the
front end looks just like a website.
On the Water, Microship Mobile...
net effect of all this has a sort of Star Trek gestalt -- complete
integration of all communication, control, and sensor tools with
access from any of the four browser environments (two boats and two
backpack laptops, all linked via high-speed wireless network). Random
interconnects are trivial to implement, so it's no big deal, for
example, to speak a verbal command like "where is my partner?" via
dual-band HT and have the Microship system respond over the air with a
synthesized voice, giving me range and bearing based on the latest APRS
data from both of our packs. Or to have the security system respond to
unauthorized midnight hatch opening by rotating the steerable camera
platform to face the intruder, flooding him with IR, and routing video
to the serial-controlled VCR while simultaneously paging me and
calling the police. And streaming 50+ sensor channels to console Java
strip chart emulators, live instrument displays, and outgoing
satellite/packet telemetry to our public breadcrumb-trail server is a
piece o' cake....
course, the real point here is taking all those geek delights and
integrating them into an adventure... and my sweetie and I are leaving
our island lab in the Spring of 2003 to begin a 15,000+ mile
expedition: a circumnavigation of the eastern US beginning on the upper
Missouri River in Montana.
begins the downhill run, though from what I've read of the upper
Missouri that's a bit of an oversimplification. We'll traipse 2,546
miles across the northern plains and down between Nebraska and Iowa...
cutting east to join the Mississippi River just above St. Louis. A
short float downriver brings us to the mouth of the Ohio... then
upriver slightly to the Tennessee, whereupon we turn south and
continue along the Tenn-Tom Waterway and down the Tombigbee River to
Mobile, Alabama (the more obvious parallel path down the lower
Mississippi is relatively hostile to small boats). At the Gulf, we
turn left on the Intracoastal Waterway and meander all the way around
Florida (through the Everglades and the Keys) and north along the
Atlantic Coast. The ICW will carry us past Boston with no shortage of
interesting exploration enroute. At this point, unless forced by
seasons or sanity to shortcut up the Hudson, we encounter open coast
for a while as we traverse the exquisitely convoluted Maine shoreline
- then into the Bay of Fundy followed by a short portage across New
Brunswick at Moncton (to skip the suicidal outside coast of Nova
Scotia). After darting around the Gaspé Peninsula during a
favorable weather window, we'll head up the St. Lawrence, turn left at
Montreal to sail down Lake Champlain, pop over to the Erie Canal,
travel back in time across New York, emerge into Lake Erie, cruise up
Lake Huron and down Lake Michigan, cut through Chicago to the
Illinois, float down the upper Mississippi, then finally struggle up
the Ohio River to Louisville, my boyhood QTH, where we'll stop at my
father's house and truck the tattered and filthy Microships back to our
Camano Island lab to fix things and address the long list of essential
changes that should have been obvious at the beginning.
then? Who knows?
Where to from Here?
OK, here's where you come in. Human-scale technomadic adventure puts us out there far from the gentle isolation of the lab, where "surfing" implies a succession of HTTP protocol transfers instead of careening headlong toward the rocks on the back of a rogue ferry wake. We'll be on the edge constantly, living in wild and unpredictable ways, always welcoming the warm encounters, shared evenings, and technical participation of the networked community.
If you'd like to keep an eye on us, read archived and current road
stories, get detailed technical information about the Microships,
watch live telemetry, help
with fabrication, or get on the mailing list for occasional email
please pop back to our front page
and have a look
around! The freshest news is on the daily update
page, and the best collection of articles and other material is in the resources section.
In the space of an article, I can barely begin to describe the details of this system... but as I stated at the outset, that wasn't my intent. The thing I'd like most to leave with you is much more important than that: it's a sense of passion... the wide-eyed delight that first sparked your interest in whatever still triggers sensations of childlike glee. I see it slipping away all around me, as incredible technology becomes taken for granted and relegated to the dusty corners of a busy life. Embrace it. Take it to extremes. Imagine the wildest application possible for your gadgets of choice and then make it happen! It's astonishing what you can accomplish if you just start dreaming and building... one small step at a time...
from the Microship... and see you out there!
-- Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE