Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Ah, The Technomadic Life!

This article in 73 came long after my series of the late eighties, focused on the Winnebiko II and the technomadic tools of that era. Written more than a decade later, this is a rare overview of the Microship project… twin amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimarans under intensive development in a remote northwest forest lab.

by Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE
June, 2000 — Camano Island, Washington

I have to make a decision up front. This can be one of those articles that desperately struggles to cram a huge amount of technical information into a relatively tight space, which, even with the generous room allotted by 73, won’t be enough. Or I can accept the futility of that approach and talk instead 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.

artwork by Natasha Clarke

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 that twisted fascination with mobile wireless connectivity that I suspect everyone reading this magazine feels in some deep, nonverbal way.

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 microcontrollcrs 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 and experience heart-pounding techno-lust. I know you know what I’m talking about, or you wouldn’t 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 WN4KSW, a skinny, burr-headed 13-year-old prisoner of school, isolated in the cultural drought of the ’50s. 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 12AU7s 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 CRTs.

Years passed. Adventures happened ; technology went deliciously berserk. I dabbled in careers, started a microcomputer consulting business called Cybertronics after firing up a homebrew 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 the Winnebiko… carrying a solar-powered computer through which I could connect to CompuServe from pay phones at an astonishing 300 baud.

I had just invented technomadics.

Winnebiko and BEHEMOTH

Life 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 life-long 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. A long 73 column series in ’88-’89 focused on the ham radio aspects of the adventure (some of those tales written on a binary handlebar keyboard while pedaling the coasts, others pounded into a laptop in the confines of my tent, consuming the day’s stored solar energy).

BEHEMOTH, 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.

Of 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.

The 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.

All 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 let-down: 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

The 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 nautical environment.

But 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 my bike. Over the next year, as I continued hauling BEHEMOTH between gigs and TV appearances (including an HF QSO from the hike on the Donahue show), 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…

I had no clue at the time that I was about to undertake eight 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.

The substrate

I’ll 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 XYL, Natasha KF6NWO, and I would kill each other if we tried to coexist in one! Each boat (Io and Europa) 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 an electric thruster powered by a huge folding 480·watt foam-core solar array allows cruising on photon power.

One 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 ca- noes 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 day? 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.

Excessive? Absurd? How many times have you let your fantasies run away with you and imagined some mad machine, ultimate ham-hack, 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. Now what?

Well, 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 a single 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.

It 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? 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 Octagon PC-680 industrial embedded Pentium hoard running Debian GNU/Linux — has a bunch 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 to Grand Central Station, has become the moral equivalent of code, and the front end looks just like a Web site.

On the water, Microship mobile…

The net effect of all this is 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 Natasha?” 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…

Of course, the real point here is taking all those geek delights and integrating them into an adventure… and my XYL and I are leaving our island lab in the Spring of 2001 to begin a 15,000+ mile mobile field day: a circumnavigation of the eastern US beginning down the road at the mouth of the Columbia River (inside the bar!). From there, it’s a 465-mile slog upriver to Lewiston, Idaho, where we’ll load the boatlets into a truck and haul them over the Rockies to the headwaters of the Missouri River at Three Forks, Montana.

There 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 explorations en route.

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 Old Muddy, 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. And then? Who knows?


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 QSOs, shared QTHs, and technical participation of the amateur 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, peer over our shoulders via the labcam, help with fabrication, or get on the mailing list for monthly updates, please visit our Web site.

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 electronics, radio, and computers. 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 step at a time.

73 from the Microship … see you out there!