Datawake in Journal of the San Juan Islands

During my years in Friday Harbor, mostly living aboard Nomadness and Datawake, I have kept a low profile in the local media. This was an exception, with an enjoyable interview with Hayley Day that became a front-page piece in the weekly paper… along with a related editorial. Here’s a photo of the front page, with the text at these two links (which open in a new tab):

Article: Friday harbor boater houses floating computer lab

Editorial: Be the change

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The Boat Bidet

This is the new control console for my toilet aboard Datawake, which has just had a major upgrade. Although most of my attention in the last year and a half has been on the übergeeky systems in the lab, there is much to be gained from improving tools that affect quality of life every day. Waterworks, sewage, power, heating/cooling, window treatments, galley, bed comfort, and the things in my recent Lifestyle Geekery post… all are unglamorous compared to holodecks and high-tech comm gear, but their effect on happiness is profound.

Datawake came with an arcane and unpleasant sanitation system dating back to the 1970s, with a San-X beast that used formaldehyde to process sewage, a tiny 8-gallon holding tank, and two VacuFlush heads with a mass of complex plumbing, 32-volt pumps, and a stuck Y-Valve. All of this had to go, and the first stage was to pull the San-X and replace it with a simple 35-gallon holding tank… which we did last year:

Getting onto a more relaxed pump-out schedule here at the port helped a lot, but I was still living with cramped heads and vacuum leaks. Although the VacuFlush system is water-efficient and has a reputation for reliability, one of the long-range goals aboard is to be rid of all antiquated 32-volt systems… not to mention ancient sewage plumbing including a long one that looked like vacuum cleaner hose, wending its way to the deck pump-out fitting with a sticky brown residue on the outside. Ick. To the dumpsters, all of it!

In the process of researching all this, I realized that it was an opportunity to integrate a bidet into my life; I’ve wanted one ever since encountering a Toto during my week at Google in 2015. But it didn’t take long to discover that marine toilets with integrated bidet seats are either ridiculously expensive (the Tecma E-Breeze is over $3K) or disappointingly primitive… and that mating a normal one with a standard marine toilet limits us to a narrow range of options. Not only do we have dimensions and seat bolt spacings that differ from domestic models, but most of the macerating electric units I was initially considering have a big step on the upper surface and bidet seats need room for equipment back there. I’m grateful to Sonja of Marine Sanitation and James of Bidet King for the long email thread as I attempted to figure all this out and get it right the first time. I should also mention that I went “simple” on the toilets themselves… the fancy version that would normally have turned my head automates the flushing process and uses .85 gallons each time; the ones I bought let me choose how much water to use on a case-by-case basis. Here is the machinery of my new Masterflush 8100, a solenoid water valve and macerating pump with metal blades, packaged in a solid porcelain body:

The upshot of all that research was this equipment list:

  • Two Dometic Masterflush 8100 marine toilets (12 volt, fresh-water flush)
  • BioBidet BB-1000 for the master cabin head
  • 50 feet of MaxFlex 1.5″ sanitation hose
  • 50 hose clamps (new ones, just in case, though the old ones look fine)
  • Y-valve
  • Three Y-connectors
  • Maretron TLM100 Ultrasonic Tank Level Monitor with 5-hole adapter

With the mountain of parts on hand, it was time to dive in… and in this, I am lucky to have had the excellent assistance of my friend Nicolas, shown in this photo contemplating That Which Must Never Be Opened. I’m anything but flexible these days, and this project involved many hours under the sole of the forward cabin, slithering into very awkward spots including the anchor locker (for the pump-out hose), and otherwise doing things that would have caused agony had I attempted them.

I still haven’t completed the documentation (huge drawing backlog), but the sketch below shows the system… a simple design. The two heads connect to a Y fitting that feeds the common port of a Y-valve, and in its normal position at the dock, the output of that goes straight to the tank. In offshore mode, this directs the sewage to a second Y fitting and then on to the overboard stopcock, allowing direct discharge in open ocean. (Friends are starting to joke about my getting off the dock and going “offshore,” but hey, it could happen!)

Allen arriving on the Pumpty Dumpty, with ever-faithful Morgan standing watch

Emptying the tank happens in two ways. Here in the port, when the Pumpty Dumpty boat comes around every few weeks (or when I fetch the portable DIY pump-out machine if I have had guests and miscalculated the burn rate), vacuum is applied to the deck fitting, pulling the tank contents through the hose via that all-important dip that allows complete emptying. The other method, which becomes legal three or more miles offshore, uses the T12 macerator pump to slurp out the contents and send them through the same overboard discharge noted above. There is a huge human-error potential here; if I fail to open that stopcock and turn on the pump, the result will be the Worst Explosion Ever. On my to-do list is an interlock to prevent that tragedy from happening.

The top of the tank has three additional fittings. A vent hose goes to a distant spot on the hull, high above waterline, preventing the tank from inflating or collapsing as it is being filled or emptied. An inspection plate can be opened if absolutely necessary, and the TLM100 ultrasonic sensor reports the tank level via the NMEA2000 network (accessible via browser using the iKommunicate gateway). This replaces a Wema float sensor and analog gauge that I never could get working properly.

It felt good to extract all the old plumbing and vacuum equipment, and we ended up using all but about two feet of the 50-foot roll of hose. With the infrastructure done, we pulled the old toilets and positioned the new ones, wired them to power and control panels, connected the plumbing, bolted them down, and gave it the plumbing equivalent of the classic smoke test. The rocker switches on the black control panel offer three simple choices:

  1. Normal flush: turn on water valve and macerator at the same time
  2. Fill the bowl by turning on water valve
  3. Dry the bowl by powering the macerator pump

This allows fine-grained control over water usage, which I consider essential when the limited space of a holding tank is a factor. Even though I am fond of blinkies, I am happy with the all-manual control version of the toilet (without the .85-gallon default, which their awful late-night-TV-style marketing video describes as “extreme low flush technology.”) I like being able to choose how much water gets used, and tend to be stingy with it. Besides, these were considerably cheaper than the automatic models. Operators are standing by!

The bidet interfaced well with the toilet, thanks to a clever system that accommodates pretty much any spacing of seat-mount bolts, and my concerns about it hanging over the front were quickly put to rest:

One of my initial worries was that even with an efficient toilet the bidet would use enough water to blast through the 35-gallon holding-tank budget, but I’ve been delighted to observe that this is not a problem. But the best part is… well… the bidet.  I love it!  If you’ve never tried one, you have no idea… this is one of those things that changes the baseline comfort level of your life (I know, that sounds like marketing hyperbole, but please trust me on this… without having to go into detail).

As you can see in the photos above, I don’t have a lot of space. This is the master cabin head compartment, and the one for the forward cabin is even skinnier. Having never owned a bidet seat before, I had nothing to go on (so to speak) except marketing literature and reviews; the model I chose rose to the top of the list because of the remote control panel. For a while I was planning to get the less-expensive and better-reviewed BB-600E, but the width of the side-mounted control panel would have made for a tighter squeeze (especially in the forward cabin).

Here it is doing a quick warm-water “posterior wash” with auto-move enabled, followed by a short dry-air cycle. It is not as scary as it looks.

The system has now been in use for a couple of weeks, and I’m mostly pleased, although the flat bottom of the Masterflush bowl translates into more frequent cleaning. Four minor tasks remain… properly lashing the tank to its mounting platform so it stays put in rough seas, tidying up cabling, doing a proper drawing for the documentation library, and installing the Maretron TLM100 ultrasonic level sensor. It’s so uncivilized to pop open the floor hatch, get down on hands and knees, turn on the light, and actually look at the tank to see if we are nearing pump-out deadline. On Nomadness, I had a stand-alone monitor with three capacitive sensors on the side of the tank; here on Datawake, I use a low-light video camera with infrared illuminator to throw an image of the ancient fresh-water tank sight glass onto the ship video network. With every new system, I try to get closer to the Platonic ideal of accurate data collection and high reliability.

Day bidet, we make progress toward this goal…

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Lifestyle Geekery Aboard Ship

Most of my posts about the starship Datawake focus on the geeky components… console systems, the holodeck, exotic digital radio, studio-grade audio processing, and so on. But this boat is home as well as lab, and many of my projects are unglamorous, non-blinking tools for simply improving the quality of life aboard. This post covers a few of those.

The Central Vacuum

For the past year, I’ve been crawling around on the floor when it gets dirty enough to bother me, dragging the shop vac and manually wielding a brush. This is painful and inefficient, but the big upright left over from my last attempt at living in a house would be too bulky to stow, and I have yet to see compromise mini models that work well enough. There are some superb handhelds (like the Dyson that my friend Steve likes on his sailboat), but I really want something suitable for a 50-foot boat with large carpeted areas.

RV and Bus nomads have long known the joys of the central vacuum, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did…. this is the Dirt Devil CV1500 (link is to the Defender product page, where the price is about $75 lower than the same item on Amazon)…

The mounting location is reasonably central in the boat; the machine is on a shelf in the laundry room, convenient for bag cleaning/replacement, and the outlet is in the pilothouse near the starboard door. I added that chrome pull switch to give me the option of leaving the hose plugged in (one less thing to stow!), since the default motor control is automatic when the hinged cover plate is opened.

The hose on this thing is amazing, and stretches to 35 feet… easily reaching all carpet from bow to stern, as well as down in the shop. A nearby drawer contains a tray of accessories, including a separate kit that necks down to a mini set of vacuum brushes for getting into tight spaces… great for spiffing up console and computers. The local free box at the marina yielded an Ikea hose hanger that perfectly completed the installation:

iPad Docks

This is an easy one. The problem was that I have four places where I like to use an iPad (other than randomly, in my hand):

  1. At the main workstation as an audio mixer panel, random event alerter, and network activity display. This is up in the air to the right of the audio console.
  2. Over the piano as a sheet-music display, sometimes with foot-pedal (Airturn) page-turning control.
  3. On the wall of the galley as a recipe reference without getting all goopy from being on the counter.
  4. Above the bed as a general tool for Facebook, messaging, reading, YouTube, remote control of Fusion and MOTU audio systems, etc.

I briefly considered four older iPads, but even if cheap, that’s still a pain… more machines to keep up to date, more confusion, more stuff. The solution is much simpler, and was obvious once I thought about it.

First, I installed an Arkon heavy-duty tablet mount with 22″ arm length, located at the front left corner of Console zone Epsilon. The first mode above is handled when the arm is swung to the right; piano mode happens when I swing it to the left. So far, so good… two down! The photo above shows it in piano mode, although sometimes I prefer the simple music stand since I have binders, educational material other than YouTube, and printed scores.

Most of the time, the iPad is off to the right where I spend hours slouched in front of the computer:

For the galley, I use a universal tablet holder along with an adapter plate screwed to the wall next to the spice rack. This keeps the iPad at eye level, away from the mess, though I don’t like those little fingers sticking out… an eye injury waiting to happen while making espresso in rough seas. That’s why the quick-release plate; on the pre-flight checklist is a note to pop that off and throw it in a drawer, along with the loose spice bottles:

(Those spices, by the way were a steal from Amazon, then I sold the wood rack and picked up the wire ones — net cost about 30% of local retail, though it ain’t Penzeys.)

Finally, there is a heavy-duty wall mount with 8-inch arm, attached to a suitable spot over the bed where it can be loosened and tucked into an adjacent cabinet opening. It does the job well… when in bed, I swing the iPad around to a convenient angle and it is much more pleasant than using the phone for the same tasks. This is the “sleep lab console” just above my pillows, about which more a bit later:

The only annoyance with all this is that the charger is, by definition, located wherever I’m not, so it ends up migrating between console and bed. I guess I should break down and get a second one…

The Sleep Lab

That photo above showing the iPad along with the rest of the bed console might have raised some eyebrows, so I’ll comment on it a bit more. This region is a work in progress, with some biometric and myoelectric-feedback projects on the horizon. But the basics are pure lifestyle-enhancement, starting with the bed itself. The one that came with the boat was actually fine (though I sure wish it had an island berth… making a bed against a wall is a pain, and I’m working on a bedding-clamp fixture to simplify the process). But the first step was to extract the original structure with Sawzall and Fein implements of destruction, then modify and install a Leggett & Platt S-Cape adjustable bed platform.

That photo shows the structure, which had to be disassembled in order to be wrangled through 24-inch-wide doors and passageways. Since this is the Twin XL half of a split king that I bought ages ago, it was too narrow… so I widened the platform with pine slats (the openings are for the vibrator motors, and the lateral gaposis is to accommodate the hinge points as it moves through its range of positions):

I then built this up with a GhostBed (jury’s still out), memory foam topper (necessary for my back), and heated pad (wonderful)… thus guaranteeing that normal fitted sheets won’t fit. I have some fabrics work to do to perfect this, but it’s working well; the adjustability, vibration, and heat are absolute lifesavers for me, though it is way too short.

As to the geeky bits, well… there are quite a lot of electronic devices in this region. Since I finally have a decent net connection, I decided it was time to install a boat theatre, sized to fit the remains of that wall I modified to make room for the new bed. Having this next to the Amazon Echo is just fine except for one minor detail. I changed the wake word from Alexa to Computer, and it is a pain when watching reruns of Star Trek.

“Computer, initiate self destruct sequence!”

“Command code not recognized. Self destruct sequence not initiated.”

Just below the TV with its simple wall mount is an 80-watt soundbar, and this not only makes the audio vastly better than the tinny internal speakers, but connects via a local mini-mixer to a feed from the MOTU audio routing system back in the main audio console in the lab. The beauty of this is that I can lie in bed, tap an icon on the iPad, select an audio source or mix, route it to the little mixer in the cabin, and then listen via headphones or the soundbar. This is essentially just a node on that system, and a bit more flexibility is provided by Bluetooth if I want to locally pipe phone or iPad audio to the good speakers on the wall.

Without delving too deeply into the sleep-lab projects (since this is a relatively non-technical piece), here is what I see over my head when lying on the bed:

  • Sony speakers hard-wired to a zone in the Fusion stereo
  • Heated bed pad controller
  • Adjustable bed platform controller
  • Digital clock with WWV synchronization
  • Remotes for TV, Smart Blu-Ray, and Soundbar in 3D-printed holders
  • Dock for cell phone
  • Uniden Home Patrol 1 scanner, with same program as console unit
  • Secondary BC125 scanner with Diamond whip inside cabinet
  • Amazon Echo remote
  • Fusion stereo remote (via NMEA2000)
  • iPad arm
  • USB charger
  • 4-channel headphone amp
  • Icom dual-band ham radio with J-pole antenna
  • Cabin lighting dimmer
  • Reading light switch
  • Biometric monitoring tools various

There is something satisfying about all this, though I quickly discovered that as much as I like blinkies, I wanted none in this environment. That was easy to fix with a few low-tech strategic bits of black tape. As to the TV and related items… it works beautifully, though I am not a fan of the Samsung SmartHub user interface and am about to try a Roku for net-delivered content. And those Samsung remote holders I mentioned were found on Thingiverse and printed in red HIPS:

ASIDE: Just a teaser on what’s next in the Lifestyle Geekery department: in addition to a suite of biometric tools, I’m starting to play with a very simple biofeedback system that is optimized for myo-level signals. I have muscles that never relax, and want to train myself to control them… tricky when the target is part of the monosynaptic muscle spindle servo loop that involves intrafusal sensors and the Gamma efferents that maintain tone. If that loop is habitually set to an extreme level, as mine seem to be (self-splinting, or whatever), then the only way to fight it is to find the “knob to twiddle,” long-buried behind a wall of pain, and learn to deliberately relax the damn thing. So I’m using little instrumentation amps and an Arduino to try to identify these and control them… although frankly, while I think large muscles like piriformis will be easy, there are a lot of layers back there and isolating groups might be harder than I imagine. Worth a try, though, and a good tool to integrate into the sleep lab!

Lighting Upgrade

This boat was built in 1974, and despite her current gizmologically intensive theme, she still carries a lot of ancient technology… like a huge 32-volt battery bank that powers incandescent lighting of that obsolete standard (though they are still used on railroads). Fortunately, these have the standard Edison base, so the retrofit to smart LED bulbs did not involve replacing fixtures.

This photo shows one of the old bulbs, glowing inside one of four different kinds of fixtures. In addition, the ceiling lights in the lab region are all flush-mount halogens, with a tricky switching system to allow them to be bright or dim, and in different groupings. All very messy!

In the lab, I just left the old fixtures (with vague plans to replace them someday), and added two Philips Hue Lightstrips along the central beam, extended to total about 10 feet each. An additional extension (via RJ-45 adapters) illuminates the counter over the espresso machine, and another strip is over the media desk. Fixtures over the console and on the galley counter have smart A19 white bulbs, which are the same as the nine distributed around the living areas of the boat. And the pilothouse likewise has the Hue strips, along with another white bulb on a work light at the electronics assembly bench.

All these communicate via a ZigBee mesh network, with a Bridge connecting them to the LAN. Various clients can access this system, so I have lots of ways to control the lighting: dimmer switches within their network, phone apps, a little menubar tool on the Mac, or voice via the Amazon Echo units in the cabin and lab. “Computer, turn on laboratory.” “Computer, set cabin light to 20 percent.” “Computer, turn off everything.”

It is incredibly useful. I have become accustomed to fine-tuning the lighting environment through spoken commands, and with the phone apps I can adjust the color of the space to warm it in the evening (reducing the blues that suppress melatonin and adversely impact sleep). This system is like f.lux for the living space.

I also have this stitched into the ship security system, which is another whole mesh network connecting about a dozen sensors to a bridge on the LAN. When it notices me leaving (with keyring transmitter and cell phone moving out of range), it starts monitoring perimeter and motion sensors… turning on the lights and capturing video streams to a cloud server if anything seems suspicious. And it’s fun to stand up in the parking lot and remotely control the boat’s color, or even put it into a lively disco mode!

There is a dimmer switch by the bed in the guest cabin, so visitors don’t have to yell down the hall and cause the Echo to reply, “Sorry, I could not find a device called damn lights in Steven’s account.”

When I started the lighting retrofit, I didn’t yet know much about Philips Hue… only that it was the expensive one. My first attempt to put LED strips over the media desk was unsuccessful; it was bright enough, but there was an annoying blue artifact down the middle from the alternating-strip overlap of the pump-light fringe spilling around the YAG:Ce phosphor conversion targets. I needed better quantum yield across the full angular range for a workspace, but they turned out to be perfect for the pantry: I dragged a 12-volt line up from the shop, added a microswitch to sense door position, and simply stuck the segments under the lip of each shelf… now I can actually see what’s in the back without having to go find a flashlight! So I recommend these after all, just not for desk lighting applications where color is critical.

We have come such a long way since the days of using electricity to generate enough heat in a filament to reach incandescence, with only about 10% of the power expenditure producing light. Having all-LED lighting in the boat not only introduces interesting control and color options, but it significantly reduces the power required… in turn relaxing battery and charge system specs, reducing heat dumped into the cabin, and eliminating the need to carry a bunch of antique spares.

The original masthead all-round white light from Nomadness. Ain’t she a beauty?

Lifestyle Maintenance Management

This post ranged over some rather unrelated topics, but what they have in common is simple day-to-day lifestyle optimization. It is easy to overlook comfort when building a starship, and I’m very guilty of eliminating comfortable places to sit if it increases space available for blinky things. It is very much worth it to notice the little irritants of daily life, then take the time to fix them.

A good recent example is something stupid, but constantly annoying: an OXO dish drainer that just didn’t work for me. Lots of Amazon reviewers like them, so it is probably just a function of dish geometry and personal preference, but after 6 months of muttering every time I piled stuff into it and tried to get it to stay put, I decided to go on a quest for one that better suits my needs. I never thought I’d feel good about spending $80 on a dish rack, but this is it… and I love it:

The whole galley needs a post of its own, but I include this here to illustrate the two extremes in the range of boat projects. First, and most fun, there are the glamorous and exciting ones:  ambitious, übergeeky, and highly inventive… the beautiful blinking creations that become a showpiece of the ship, pointed out on tours. But behind the scenes and every bit as important are the ones that solve ongoing little irritants, like a shower caddy slipping down every day, trivially fixable with a hose clamp. Or missed visitors, fixed with a doorbell. Or fiddly dish drying, fixed with a decent rack.

Whatever the case, in an immersive lifestyle project like this, it’s worth remembering to take care of the annoying stuff and pamper the bod. Without that, the epic gizmology is nowhere near as much fun! For another upgrade in this department, check out the boat bidet!

Cheers from the Starship Datawake,

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The Ship Weather Station

Datawake was named for a central theme of this project: slurping information from a wide variety of sensors, presenting it on a console, then leaving a wake of data astern. “Sensors” come in many flavors, and I use the term to include status bits, temperatures, radio traffic, video, navigation data, network and server logs, motion detectors, and anything else that conveys the status of the environment… including the weather.

Expensive nautical sensors are poor at visualization compared to home weather stations. There is a whole culture around these, including public servers crowdsourced with data from thousands of volunteers. Why not? Here’s the latest addition to the Datawake console… the Ambient WS-1001-WIFI (Amazon link is to improved model with Internet connectivity) tucked beside the Rigol power supply:

I’ve wanted a weather station on the boat for a while, but every time I started to research the options I got overwhelmed. There’s a lot to learn, including which products are poor, hard to use, or expensive to integrate… and last week I almost back-burnered that quest yet again. But I started noticing references to this Ambient product (often referred to as a “clone” in the weather geek forums, as it is made by Fine Offset in China), and found myself attracted to the display. It is much nicer than the ones that look like they were made in the ’90s, or those that do “fake color” with filters over a monochrome LCD. This actually looks sweet at about $300, and the size was perfect.

At first, my intentions were simple. I’d mount the sensor pod on the upper deck, stick the indoor sensor somewhere, mount the display on the wall where the Circle of Fifths clock used to be, then sign up to feed my data to Weather Underground. This is all turn-key with the product, and I planned to turn on logging to the internal Micro SD card so I could extract raw historical data down the road. But the project quickly became more interesting with my friend Steve Mitchell of Sailbits visiting from Seattle.

First things first… we couldn’t tinker with this until it was generating data, so I clambered topside to consider options. Fortunately, there is a stainless stub at the end of one of the spreaders on my radar mast, and with a bit of digging around the raw materials inventory I found some clear vinyl hose that perfectly filled the gaposis between that and the sensor array support tube. And by “perfectly,” I mean that it was an interference fit into the tube, and clamped solidly to the post with a hose clamp. Easiest topside mounting job ever, and it doesn’t even need wires! It does have to point north for the wind direction to mean anything, so I fine-tuned it with my hand-bearing compass and tightened it down.

That solar-powered unit provides wind speed and direction (including gust information), temperature, rainfall (self-emptying), solar radiation, UV, and humidity. The indoor sensor pod sends air pressure as well as inside temperature and humidity.

We powered up the display and were delighted to see it immediately begin reporting conditions, so conversation turned to what to do with the data stream out of the device (HTTP). Steve is a weather geek and has been doing this for 20 years… and he lives and breathes network architecture. I just stepped back and watched as he conjured the system, which came to life in about an hour. I’ll link you to his much more detailed explanation in a moment, but basically, this is what happens:

One of the machines sitting in the console aboard Datawake is an Intel NUC running Linux. This has been devoted to Zabbix, which is a suite of network monitoring tools. It had lots of clock cycles available, so Steve installed weeWX, an open-source system for doing clever things with personal weather stations. He did a router trick to redirect the HTTP stream that my Ambient box thinks it is sending to Weather Underground, then had weeWX use that to create a website that appears both locally and at the new URL hosted on an Amazon cloud server, updated every five minutes:

Friday Harbor Weather

Meanwhile, the system also feeds three public aggregators (links are to my own data):

If you are interested in studying Steve’s weeWX implementation as well as additional context from his decades of experience with this kind of data, he has a post at Sailbits that gives a much more detailed explanation.

And with that… it was done! A single afternoon’s work, with a couple of follow-up tweaks, and we have added yet another virtual anchor to this boat. There is a new item on the “preflight checklist” that requires me to interrupt the outgoing weather feed lest it look like some anomalous microclimate when I get off the dock. I also feed ADS-B data to FlightAware, although that can handle changing GPS coordinates, and I still operate the Friday Harbor radio check system on Marine VHF Channel 28. (At least I’ve handed off the AIS reporting station to my friend down on Griffin Bay… location-based public services are incompatible with that “open-ended wandering” I keep saying I want to do!)

But they are fun and very useful… especially when I can observe little anomalies and then have them corroborated by data collection and visualization tools. A big cloud cruised by this afternoon…

If you are interested in replicating all this to add to the fine-grained weather-reporting network, I am very pleased with the Ambient 1001 used here… and they also have the WS-1200-IP that would have slightly simplified the process of getting the HTTP output stream into a useful piece of local code. Still, it is pretty much locked in their ecosystem, requiring work-arounds to accomplish the kinds of things Steve did… so if you want to replicate this, I do recommend the 1200 (almost the same price, with all the same features plus that added ObserverIP box). Steve’s article gives lots more information about how to take it from there.

Meanwhile, back on Datawake, the topside is getting ever more prickly with antennas and sensors… soon I will be able to say that she’s in Bristle Condition! I’ve just acquired the hardware to add a stainless tripod to the pilothouse roof; this will support the 5-band HF dipole and a PTZ camera. Two other antennas are slated to join the ones around the upper deck, and at some point I’ll swap out the existing Marine VHF stick. And that white all-round light at the top of the mast will be replaced by a magnetic loop and an LED. Hope I don’t run into any low bridges…

Datawake upper deck at sunset in the Port of Friday Harbor

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Microship Seeks Geeky Skipper

A decade of my life (1993-2002) was focused on the development of this gizmologically intense amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran, but as the project neared its end, my own nautical desires were shifting. She sat in my lab for a few years, nearly forgotten… then had a swan song in 2013 with dozens of day-sails in the waters around my new home on San Juan Island. By then I was living aboard an Amazon 44 named Nomadness.

More years passed. Mostly because of back issues, but also on the quest for enough space aboard to build a proper starship with room to work, I moved to the Dark Side in the form of a Delta 50 named Datawake. Still the Microship sits… gathering dust in my lab, waiting for her next adventure.

For a while, I was sure I would be launching this from the upper deck of the mothership; I do have a crane, and there is even enough room (with a bit of fiberglass surgery). But it would be too complex… and I know from experience that I would rarely use it. This exquisitely engineered boatlet would become a sculpture on top of a big power boat, incongruous, offering windage and habitat instead of the gonzo technomadic adventure for which she was designed.

So. As I get older and find myself increasingly unlikely to take off on the epic voyage of coastal and inland waterways that inspired the decade of development, I have come to realize that she needs a new home.

There are a few links below about the design and systems, including a narrative of physical fabrication that shows the details of physical structure. We had the benefit of world-class consultation on this project, including naval architects, composites gurus, Boeing contractors, human-powered-vehicle experts, power system engineers, and lots of brilliant volunteers. About 160 corporate sponsors offered the best equipment available, and we built a 3,000 square-foot lab on Camano Island for the project… after 2 embryonic years in the engineering building at UCSD and another 2 years of intensive development in a Silicon Valley facility donated by Apple Computer. In other words, this was a serious undertaking with incalculable monetary value, driven by technopassion and heavily supported by industry.

So what is this unusual boat? The Microship was built for a 14,000-mile trip down the Missouri and around the Great Loop, with initial shakedowns in the Pacific Northwest from Olympia to Port Hardy. She has three modes of propulsion (pedal, solar, and sail), and includes deployable landing gear to allow haulout and basic portage without needing a truck and trailer. It is possible to sleep aboard, though it is spartan… you disconnect the pedals and retract the seat, then unroll a camping mattress and sleeping bag (I called this “on-water bivouac”). The structure was designed to integrate an electronics console with excellent serviceability… that cowling opens fully for access… and all mechanical controls of rudder and landing gear are hydraulic.

In other words, this is a very geeky boat. It includes 480 watts of solar panels bonded to vacuum-bagged folding panels that fill the spaces between the hulls, along with an 8-channel peak-power tracker system with thruster control. The sail is a 93 square-foot roller furling, vertically battened rig… with the mast rotating in its step under control of a furling drum. The pedal drive is a Spinfin, custom made for this boat, with 10x ratio between the crankset input and 13-inch prop… allowing easy cruise in the 3-4 knot range with faster sprints.

A few things still need to be completed or improved… I would estimate 2-3 months of shop time before embarking on an open-ended adventure. This would include integration of modern comm/nav electronics in addition to whatever tools are needed for the application, fixturing of the outer edges of the solar array, simplification of transition into and out of on-water bivouac mode, addition of tramps if the solar array is not used, fine-tuning the rudder control hydraulics (or replacement with cable control), completion of the fabric dodger and side windows, and a few other things. Small stuff compared to what’s already done, but there is work involved before she is ready for full-time… although a project involving data-collection day trips or other more casual application would shorten the list considerably.

Who is this for?

The Microship was designed for a high-tech expedition in the spirit of my earlier bicycle adventures, and I like to imagine that somewhere out there is a next-generation technomad who is my spiritual descendent of sorts… certainly with a more current vision, given how far technology has come, but with the same gonzo obsession and eagerness to do something brilliant in the public eye. This boat attracts attention; the media loves it, and you never have a problem finding someone to catch lines. One of the hardest parts is escaping the crowd at the dock, taking photos and asking questions. This is a micro-yacht with fine detailing, and carries lots of things nobody has ever seen around a marina.

One possible mission for the boat is related to what I was doing, but with vastly more powerful tools. Imagine a jaunt down a river, streaming environmental telemetry and live commentary, along with underwater video from a Trident ROV and aerial imagery from a folding Mavic drone. This would be beautiful, with a broadband cellular pipe that scales back gracefully to ham radio when out of range. Visitors to your site could interact with a virtual Microship console, showing live instruments (via an N2K gateway) with graphic history served from a database that logs all the streams. This is what I was intending to do (although back then, high-bandwidth aerial and underwater video was a pipe dream).

Doing something publicly geeky like this attracts media and sponsorship, and becomes self-supporting if you have a clearly articulated mission and the kind of personality that keeps the buzz going. And the Microship fits right in… she’s not just some random boat, but a purpose-built miniature research vessel. Of course, not everyone wants to be this public, but part of the value here is that the boatlet already has a deep history of media coverage and development narrative, and I would love to see a new project leverage that. See my Reaching Escape Velocity book for more on this…

The Price

As I hinted above, it is impossible to pin a price tag on this… that depends on the buyer. The number will be high if someone just wants a trophy to display; that is not what I want to be known for. This would also be a poor choice if you are looking for a beach tri… Hobie makes some wonderful machines for that, with a lot fewer moving parts (I want a Tandem Island for my upper deck). And it is very much a one-person craft… and is not for ocean-crossings.

I can almost imagine it being used for a short adventure, like the Race to Alaska. Of course, that sounds hard… and there are lots of faster multihulls out there… and it would be uncomfortable… and then it would be over! Racing stress would probably break a few things, and most of the engineering in this boat would be irrelevant for that application anyway. (I’m the opposite of a racer, though R2AK is cool.)

Microship in the San Juan Islands
So here’s the deal: I’m willing to listen to proposals. A huge part of my life is tied up in this boat, and I will inevitably be part of whatever comes next… even if not hands-on. If a project excites me, and includes the sort of passion that launched this project, then the price will get very friendly. Heck, I can even imagine a scenario where it continues to be technically “mine” but is “loaned” to an expedition with the understanding that I share in the fame ‘n glory as the initial builder. Or perhaps there could be a hugely discounted purchase that hands over ownership but recognizes all the improvements that will inevitably be made, along with the publicity. Or maybe there would be ongoing involvement where I participate in the next layer of geekery and help with mission-control.

There could even be an outright donation of the boat, if I can be convinced that her new skipper will take her places where I would have loved to go, with me participating in the next generation (shared publishing project or other spin-offs). I can imagine a scenario based right here in Friday Harbor, with Datawake tethered to Microship for mini-expeditions that probe the space around us, generating virtual tours including something playable in the Oculus Rift and other VR spaces. Hmmmmm….

So there is no price tag. But she is available. Does this excite your nautical technopassions? Do you have years to put into an expedition, or a project involving education and telemetry, or a vision I have yet to even imagine? Got an idea that would help amortize the massive investment that has gone into this? Talk to me. (The contact form is up in the menu). Please bear in mind that I need to see a way for it to really work, which means a history of successful projects, a mediagenic nature, boating experience, clear communication, and enough technical knowledge to make such an undertaking realistic.

Microship Information

Here are some articles on this site that will give more detailed information…

Building the Microship Trimaran  — The ten-year Microship project left a trail of narratives from which it is difficult to extract a clear picture of what, exactly, lies at the heart of this machine. I wrote this to provide that, leaving out electronics, landing gear, hydraulics, pedal drive, thruster, solar array, sail rig, and other complications.

Microship Electronics Photo Essay Even though much of the electronics developed for the ship is now obsolete (and unnecessary to future expeditions), this gives an excellent look at some of the engineering that went into the project. Today’s tools are so much smaller that the comm/nav and telemetry side of things will be easy and cheap.

Microship Hydraulics — Landing-gear control, ship steering, and rudder deployment all depend on a hydraulic system that allows linear push-pull movement to be routed through cabling harnesses. This piece gives a look at that system.

Microship Revival — In 2013, after a decade of lying idle in the lab, I splashed the boat and kept her for a few months in the Port of Friday Harbor… leading to lots of short adventures. This is the tale of that launch.

In addition to those stories, the archives of this site have lots of media coverage and a few of the 144 Microship Status Reports that were published during the decade of development. If you have any specific questions, please don’t hesitate to ask… and if this is triggering a powerful itch to take a geeky boatlet on a grand expedition, I definitely want to hear from you!

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360 Views around Datawake

I’ve started playing with 360° photos, and of course the first application is to create a virtual tour of the boat. The tool I’m using is the Samsung Gear 360, driven my my S6 phone. I’m working on a proper walkthrough with about 15 images and warp points to connect them, but that’s a large project… first things first! Here’s a quick look at my slovenly workspace…

And another, while playing on 20-meter ham radio…

Yesterday I clambered up to the top of the pilothouse and looked around the neighborhood….

And, here’s the galley, with the wonderful Instant Pot and all-important espresso machine, along with the iPad for recipes in a wall-mounted holder (it has three homes aboard; when not in the galley it is either over the bed or on an arm at the console for sheet music or audio management)…

The machine shop is tricky to photograph. One end is a giant mess, and the end with the mill is very bright…

The engine room door is just aft of the machine shop, and holds two massive Cummins VT-903 turbos (more detailed photo) that are due to be replaced in a daunting electric/hybrid repower project…

Up in the pilothouse, you can see the helm that is still in serious need of equipment upgrades, along with the wall o’ Stanleys (yet to be properly fixtured) and a little electronics workbench…

360 photos are trickier than normal ones since they show everything; I can’t just carefully frame an image to show a clean spot while piles of clutter are just out of frame! It is also more difficult, since the light sources themselves are usually in the image. But it’s a hoot, and with Facebook making it easy to embed 360 images I’m having fun sharing the project (and Friday Harbor) with friends. As I do more, or get better images to replace these, I’ll update this page until it is a full tour of the boat.

Samsung Gear 360 camera aboard Datawake

As I mentioned, my camera is the Samsung Gear 360, which I chose after considerable research. It’s about $250 plus SD card, and the other major player in that price range is the Ricoh Theta S with a larger user population and more convenient packaging, but the Samsung has higher resolution and uses a smartphone for live remote viewing and stitching. I have the Samsung S6 Edge, and being able to get out of the shot without a timer is wonderful. I added a 128GB micro-SD card, so there is a ton of room for 30 megapixel stills (7776 x 3888), along with many hours of 360 video (it does 4K, as well as time lapse with .5-60 second intervals… that is going to be fun!

If you look down in some of those images above, you can see the wye-shape of the tripod legs. This is a big issue for 360 cameras, and normal tripods add a huge amount of visual bulk that often ends up getting masked by a disk (with logo). The work-around for that is to use a light stand, and I already had one that has been part of my photo studio kit for years. If you don’t have one of those, the normal solution is a combo tripod and selfie stick.

You can see more of my photospheres in the Facebook page where I post images from around the islands and adjacent waters: San Juan Islands 360

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Every Starship Needs a Holodeck

The Oculus Rift aboard Datawake

Years of watching Star Trek convinced me of the importance of holographic environment simulators, but my little ship is too small for the imagery and matter-conversion subsystems used on the Enterprise holodeck. We had to await the development of personal-scale tools that present the illusion of virtual realities without requiring a significant physical space. I’m excited to report that this technology is now part of Datawake, and I’ve just returned from a whale encounter in TheBlu followed by a slow circuit around the International Space Station in Discovering Space. Here’s a screen shot that doesn’t even come close to the weightless and fully immersive sensation of being there at the helm of a small ship:


Even now, back at the computer, I glance down at my hands and think “wow, they look so real…” And my friend Julie dropped by the boat, only to find it a portal to other worlds:

julie-rift-allVirtual Reality has moved well past the “science project” level to become a viable toolset for immersive experiences, games, education, and entertainment. There is now enough high-quality content to build a useful library… and having it aboard is a hoot! One of my favorite activities now is cruising my old bicycle routes in Google Earth VR (a killer app right there… it is magical and free). I hadn’t planned to include this on the boat, but since I needed a PC with fast graphics anyway, why not? My little ship now has a holodeck. Here is my friend Jenny meeting a whale:

There are a few major choices when diving into VR, and two years ago I picked up a Google Cardboard as a teaser. For a while I had the more refined Samsung Gear VR in my Amazon wish list… but it didn’t seem like a deep enough leap into the field, and thus never seriously tempted me. But things have been changing rapidly. The system aboard now is a shared conferencing space, an immersive environment for driving the Trident ROV, a drawing tool, a viewer for 360 stills and video, and an anatomical reference. OK, and fun.

nolan-bushnell-eyephone-larry-wallWay back in 1988, I was at a conference in the hills above Silicon Valley, and in the demo room there was an amazing device: the EyePhone, by Jaron Lanier (VPL). In addition to trying it myself, I was fortunate enough to get a photo of Atari’s Nolan Bushnell playing racquetball, with Larry Wall (who later wrote the Perl language) in the background. The moment stuck with me: smart people playing with something destined to become huge (though farther off in the future than they probably imagined). During the BEHEMOTH years (1989-91) I used a helmet-mounted display, but that was just a floating screen… current VR headsets create a true sense of all-around immersion that feels real.

With accurate head position tracking, sharp optics, quality sound, hand controllers precise enough to allow gestures, and fast high-res graphics, this technology is at last at the point where it has attracted the huge gaming industry. So when I found myself shopping for a suitable PC to support my upcoming movie-scanning project, it was a minor leap to bump up the graphics engine and add VR capability. For various reasons, I decided to go for the Oculus Rift with Touch controllers.

rift-asusMy friend Steve (SailBits) and I then went back and forth for weeks, researching a PC suitable for both fun and work needs… ranging from an a-la-carte homebrew box with potential integration issues to liquid-cooled custom solutions that cost over twice as much. There are a few “Oculus Ready” machines in between, and we chose a suitably configured Asus G20CB… off-the-shelf, small, and QUIET. This version has the OS on a 500GB SSD, along with a 1TB HD for the monstrous image files I’m about to start accumulating. And it’s “Oculus-ready,” so even a non-Windows-literate person like me could get it going without hand-holding. Graphics is the insanely fast GeForce GTX1080, and CPU clock is 4GHz… all of which makes this old-timer’s head spin (my 8008 in 1974 had a 600 kHz clock). I didn’t expect to love a PC, but I am getting attached to this contraption.

steve-riftThis all came online in the past few days, and I’m already hooked… diving into the holodeck for recreation, relaxation, education and challenge. At first I worried that it would be too “gamey” for me… I have zero interest in first-person shooters and battle simulations… but I’ve been delighted to see that the range of titles is huge and provocative (including tools that bring the entire PC environment into virtual space, so you can reach outside and control things without having to switch gears).

Toybox is an amusing example. With pop-up control panel holographically projected by a virtual wrist tool, you can choose categories of toys… slingshots, guns, boomerangs, foam blocks, puppets, ping-pong, M-80s and Roman candles, radio-controlled tanks, and more… in a room with lots of tempting fragile things, plus tetherballs and other goodies. Sounds very silly, but it works… then gets better with glass balls that you can shatter (with slingshot, or just tossing on floor) to transport the whole playroom into deep ocean or outer space. But all that just sets the stage… it becomes stunning when a friend arrives. You suddenly see the other person (as an avatar head and precisely tracking hands), hear them clearly, hand things back and forth, and interact with the room full of goodies. It’s insane… social real-time simulation in a funny place that has realistic physics. Less frivolously, I have other tools in the library for more sedate conferencing, sharing movies with distant friends, and so on.


A region of interest in 3D Organon VR, with a few vertebrae removed for clarity. This tool allows diving deep, with over 4000 models, anatomical names, pop-up details, and ability to look inside.

I’m resisting the temptation to post many photos from VR experiences, since the desktop screen just shows a flat version of whatever is in the tiny region in front of me. Such images don’t even begin to reflect the sense of awe that comes from finding yourself in another place… above the rings of Saturn, a floating town in the clouds, riding through an alternate reality, or exploring the anatomical model of 3D Organon. (I’ve been learning about body parts, chasing cranial nerves, disassembling the skeleton, and peeking into endocrine systems.)

Another completely unexpected discovery was the creation environments, Quill and Medium (both free with Oculus Touch). The first lets you create 3D illustrations, and the other is for making things with clay… working in a space that feels real, with tools that spring from your hands and respond precisely to your movements. Objects can be exported and 3D-printed, making the jump from imagination to model to thing without stepping more than a couple of feet away from a desktop in a boat. It’s magic.

nick-riftRhapsodies aside, this short post isn’t a review of experiences… I’m still a newbie, and there’s an entire culture of VR users discussing the fine points of Rift vs Vive, sensors to expand playspace to room size, hacks to allow installing something not yet released on a platform (Google Earth!), and which spaceflight simulators minimize nausea without giving up realistic motion controls. I’m just dipping my toe into virtual waters, but the Oculus Rift has already been a wonderful addition to life aboard. I have a feeling I’ll be getting more visitors, like my friend Nick who dropped by last night to play Ripcoil and take the Senza Peso cruise!

I’m learning about authoring environments, and the various ways of getting at least a few static 360º images of Datawake online… it’s really hard to express with these old daguerreotypes and tintypes. (I had the crazy thought this evening of viewing a 360º panorama of this space while sitting in this space. That might be oddly unsettling, especially when the invisible cat jumps onto my lap.)


The Datawake holodeck is to port, across from the lab console, and will get properly integrated before the ship actually moves. The Asus box will have a fixturing system to keep it in place, and the monitor will deploy on an arm from the shelf overhead, clearing desk space for the movie-scanning system. That monitor in the photo is shared by the Intel i3 NUC that owns a USB hub for software-defined radios and other comm tools, and serves as a Raspberry Pi development display. Lighting above the desktop (as well as the whole lab) is Philips Hue Lightstrip Plus, voice-controlled via Alexa or manually via phone and computer apps… but that is a topic for another post.

All this has been messy… with headset, Touch controllers, wand, and XBox remote laying on the desk along with PC, monitor, cables, keyboard, mouse, and other stuff. I found a clever Rift hanger design mentioned on the Reddit Oculus group, downloaded it from Thingiverse, doubled the Z-axis thickness, printed a pair for the goggles, and mounted a couple of 1-1/4 plastic tubing straps for the Touch controllers. The little wand hangs from one of the brackets, and the Xbox controller lives between the ScanSnap and the laser printer just above all this. Much better! I got my desk back.

“Alexa, set laboratory lights to ten percent. I’m going to go land the Eagle on the moon, then take a languid Artaal cruise before bed… unless I end up wandering around Hunrath and Kaptar for a while, trying to figure out those trees…”

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The Datawake Console

by Steven K. Roberts 
Nomadic Research Labs

Much of my past year has been spent integrating a wide range of equipment into the 8-foot console aboard Datawake. It has been a huge project, but is already paying off… making everything feel like a single system, simplifying interconnects, and minimizing clutter. It is not yet “complete,” but it’s far enough along for a tour.


This has been considerably refined since I first described it in this blog a year ago. There’s nothing like actually putting a system into daily use to shine a harsh light on design choices, and it didn’t take long to banish the messy electronics lab gear far from the computer, then bring audio and comm panels into close proximity since those are the knobs I most often want to twiddle while in the Big Chair. The photo above is current as of January 2017, with the Mac just out of frame to the right.

desk-done-clean-emptyJust for a quick background, this began with the footprint of a comfy L-shaped couch, including stowage bins under the cushions for life vests and other nautical gear. Within a month of moving aboard, I had pulled that and built the console substrate… with a laminated desktop 1.5″ thick, 31″ above the floor. This is a little higher than a typical desk, but I needed to accommodate the piano drawer… and besides, I’m a tall guy. The two heavy desktops are supported by eight stainless rail legs with marine fittings, along with three attachments to hard points on the cabin side and rear.


Early assembly of console cabinets (March, 2016)

The console is built into five Middle Atlantic CFR1216 cabinets, which I chose for their minimum overhead (hardly any surrounding edges beyond 12U of panel real estate). They are also symmetrical, which makes it possible to flip them around if a 10-32 threaded hole is damaged. It’s good stuff, though the price made me wince. I found a matching tool cabinet to provide a set of locking drawers that would be visually consistent, and added a “trellis” of stainless tubing along the back to help with cable management. The cabinets glide on Delrin runners, but will index onto receivers bolted to the back of the desktop with thumbscrews inserted from below to lock them in place.

The L-shaped extension at the aft end provides a perfect setting for the workstation, with an adjustable keyboard tray that swings side-to-side, raises/lowers, and tilts. This photo from last March shows it all clean, which is a rarity… in this early arrangement, I had speakers flanking the monitor:


This “wing” of the console is where I spend almost all my time, so it has been getting ongoing refinement. The dead space behind the monitor was going to accumulate clutter no matter what, so I screwed on a couple of bookends and used that area for the music library. The “demi-wall” at right provides a visual break as well as blocking droplets from wet clothing when someone comes in the aft door, and it has become the spot for studio microphone boom, headphone hanger, a webcam, lighting control, cat scratching post, and other fixtures. A USB charger and dual-bander microphone are in the desk inside corner, and underneath are useful things like trash can, shredder, and foot massager.

Shacktopus Power CartThe area below the desk is critical, and houses two uninterruptible power supplies — the AC provided by a 675-watt CyberPower UPS that reports to the NAS and Zabbix engine, and the Shacktopus power cart that handles all the 12-volt loads (like radio and marine stereo gear). This architecture isolates the console from ship power, adding an additional layer of security and backup with all distribution local and well-documented. The original sofa structure provides other useful cabinetry below the desk, as well as a platform for the subwoofer…. and the desktop provides mounting support for a heavy-duty piano drawer. That was a huge project, but the Kawai keyboard now tucks completely under the desktop but can deployed in a moment if I get the urge to play.

The surface above the console is prime real estate, and has become the repository of a variety of objects that need open space, don’t panel mount well, or are just frequently needed. The dominant features up there are the KRK studio monitors, their angle optimized by IsoAcoustic stands with 3D-printed spacers to direct the rather tiny sweet spot at my head while I’m playing the piano. Much more position-tolerant are the Polk bookshelf speakers, driven by the Crown rack amp along with a pair of Fluance units on the other side of the room. All in all, this sounds pretty decent. (I should note that these toys would all go expensively flying if I were to head out into heavy seas today; on the to-do list are the Southco soft draw latches to hold the monitors down to the HDPE substrate, as well as simple bolts for the passives.)

monitors-stright-thinOK, that takes care of what’s above and below… now let’s cruise through the console itself. The five 12U rack cabinets carry Greek letter designations, left-to-right, to decouple the packaging from functional groupings that have less-precise boundaries.

Console zone α (alpha)

alpha-zoneOff at the far left end is the analog video gear, including an 8-by-8 Extron switcher and a Delvcam triple monitor. On top of this cabinet are Sony VHS and Hi-8 VCRs, since I’m converting a ton of old TV appearances and other events to be embedded on this site (linked here). Video is routed via the switcher to local display and Elgato digitizer, with audio passed to the MOTU interface so I can tweak, monitor, cue tapes, send to the TV/soundbar in the cabin, and so on.

This zone also has the Crown XLS-1000 audio amp for the passive speakers, and a somewhat-undefined 4U covered space known as the “hack zone” for data collection, tinkering, and random I/O. And the top slot of alpha contains a Furman power conditioner with monitor, tied into the UPS that is under the desk as well as other loads.

alpha-delvcam-extron-crownBy the way, that Crown is a nice unit. For a long time I considered it overkill and even had it up for sale, but now I appreciate it as a solid driver of the four speakers without a hint of fan noise or other misbehavior. It’s Mode D (digital) and runs cool, with reconfiguration modes (crossover, high-pass, low-pass, bridged) available for more complex setups. Their newer version, with various improvements, is the XLS1002.

Console zone β (beta)

beta-zoneThis shiny-tan expanse needs to make its way to the local powder-coating shop for a pigment update, and is the Rigol test equipment suite (DMM, Oscilloscope, and triple-output power supply). There is also a Siglent SDG805 signal generator to the right of this group that I plan to repackage alongside the DMM at the top of this cabinet, better integrating the lab gear and opening up precious space over in gamma… it would be nice to add a spectrum analyzer. (It never ends, does it? At least the 60U rackspace and general constraints of a boat enforce some hard limits on sprawl.) It’s a nice little lab, with an antistatic mat that fits the desktop when is in use.

siglentI used stock Rigol rackmount kits for all this, but would probably not do so again. They were overpriced and inconsistent… expensive kluges made of steel, hard to adapt. The oscilloscope one is particularly annoying… the DS2072A just sits there, captured only by a little lip at the base, and until I zip-tied the expensive instrument in place it could fall out if the cabinet were tilted backward. I do love their test equipment, though. Siglent did a better job with their black aluminum rackmount kit, which is currently parked at the bottom of gamma.

echo-dotThe oddity in this zone is the RAM mount next to the scope, supporting this case that I 3D-printed for the Amazon Echo Dot. In this location, it hears me pretty well when I’m seated at the command center, as well as picking up requests from the Galley for timers or calculations. It has also become my primary lighting control, piped to Philips Hue and SmartThings.

This unit is distinguished from the original Echo (down in the Sleep Lab) by a lack of decent internal speakers… but it has line-level out. This is piped over to the MOTU audio system, given a touch of EQ and reverb, then mixed in with my primary sources.

A quick note about that CyberPower outlet strip in the photo… I use four of those including rear-mount variants, and love them. Heavy long cable and solid construction, though I have never had a chance to knowingly test their surge suppression. The gadget that is plugged in is a SmartThings switched outlet that I use for random loads; it’s nice to just say “Computer, turn on console outlet” and have it comply.

I added the ship’s weather station display next to the Rigol power supply… it was a perfect fit and just too tempting:

Console zone γ (gamma)

This is Grand Central Station for ship networking: Peplink Balance One router, UniFi 24-port switch, Cloud Key, hubs, Synology RS815 NAS, servers, gateways, bridges, and all those other blinky goodies that end up becoming central to our lives. With three external units (outdoor Mikrotik Groove for port WiFi, Jetpack for cellular fail-over, and UniFi AP for internal wireless devices), this is the core of all data services on the ship:


The architecture of this deserves its own post, so I won’t go into detail in a general console tour, but this cabinet is densely packed… challenging my cable-management protocols and requiring active cooling.


As I mentioned in the beta section, the signal generator is parked in this cabinet for the moment, and above it is a locking rack drawer for handheld instruments and accessories… multimeter, network and audio cable testers, IR thermometer, AC detector, scope and other instrument probes, clip leads, tube of Tef-Gel for rack screws, and so on. This is currently a bit inconsistent… the tool cabinet at the far end of the console also has an electronics category, as does the large stainless beast that dominates the room, with still more strewn about at the assembly bench up in the pilothouse. This is undergoing refinement and steadily improves as I use it, slowly reducing the time wasted running around trying to find things that just have to be here somewhere… like my favorite red-handled dikes that disappeared a month ago.


Finally, this zone has another one of the CyberPower outlet strips like the one in beta. Because of active airflow through the NAS, switch, and overall cabinet, I periodically take the Shop Vac to gamma and slurp out dust deposits.

Console zone δ (delta) 

This region is devoted to amateur radio equipment. The major part of this is a 6U panel (10.5 inches) that supports four rigs:

  • Icom IC-7300 – HF/50 MHz, SDR, bandscope, digital modes
  • Icom IC-M802 – Marine SSB (both amateur and channelized)
  • Icom ID-5100 – D-Star dual-bander (2m/70cm)
  • Yaesu FT-817 – QRP multimode 160m-70cm “Swiss Army Knife” rig


In addition, this panel has to carry both straight and iambic CW keyers, along with a few random controls and connectors. Above this is a smaller panel that is about to get some additional comms-related gear, but the photo above was done just after the mounting of the four rigs. I had planned on five, including my venerable Icom 706mkIIg, but that really was getting redundant and crowded… so it is going in the pilothouse console as a backup.

hoverpanelBoth the M802 (orange display) and 5100 (awful display) have associated “black boxes” mounted elsewhere, making those units light and installation easy. But the 7300 is too heavy to cantilever off the panel, and the 817 needs support as well. I installed a plywood floor in this cabinet, machined some big brackets for the large radio, added a polycarbonate shelf for the little QRP rig, milled all the holes including two small ones for keyers, added rubber channel edging including messy manual beveling with a knife, and called it done(ish)… at least until I take it all apart to add the little stuff.

gamma-mic-sidecondenser-boom-micThe radios all have hand mics, but that gets messy with multiple rigs. One of the applications for the audio switching system is use of a single quality microphone, routed to any radio. In practice, there are two: dynamic at the console, and condenser on a long boom next to the computer where it extends nicely for video conferencing.

At this writing, I’m working on the blank 4U panel above — this gets packet and PACTOR modems, SWR/power monitor, a small speaker, controls for configuration, DSP audio filter, station clock, stand-alone CW decoder, and other accessories. Antenna configuration is done through a 2U coax patch panel in the delta cabinet, and the OpenSPOT for digital voice modes sits on top for best antenna coverage.

Console zone ε (epsilon)

Finally, the fifth zone of the console, at my left hand while seated at the workstation, is completely devoted to audio. This has a few carefully interfaced connections to the radios next door, but it goes a lot further than that; somewhere around 48 sources and half that many sinks are interconnected through the MOTU tools (see tech discussion here).


pi-cutout-epsilonMechanically, epsilon is a mix of 5 standard units and two custom jobs. The top panel contains a Uniden Home Patrol 2 scanner (installation described here) and a Fusion MS-IP700 marine stereo. The second panel was harder, requiring slots for the right-angle connectors feeding audio in and out of the Tascam PortaStudio as well as a tricky cutout for the 7″ Raspberry Pi touchscreen that will be dedicated to audio streaming and routine display of tools like Zabbix, Unifi, MikroTik, & the ship server.

avb-bezel-motuIn the photo above, you can see the rectangular window for the MOTU AVB Switch. The unit is simply Velcro’d to the 24Ai below, positioned to be coplanar with the back of the panel. To cover the sharp shiny milled edge, I printed a little bezel after a few tries (not just to get the dimensions correct, but I was having some adhesion problems with HIPS plastic on the PEI bed). I’m happy with the results… more blinkies!

This cabinet, like delta, requires active cooling since the MOTU boxes run hot. I picked up a quiet AC Infinity cabinet fan, printed a mounting bracket, spot-faced some holes to avoid interference with the steel cabinet top, and put it all together. In this photo, you can also see the arm mount for the iPad, as well as one of the monitor stands that has yet to get properly bolted down. That little blue light peeking out is a Bluetooth receiver piped to a stereo pair in the audio network.


This MOTU system, despite a somewhat daunting learning curve, is amazing. The whole boat is getting stitched into it: soundbar in the cabin, microphones ranging from studio-grade to cheap security bugs, ham rigs, speakers and headphones, media tools, computers, marine radio, streaming tools, and so on. It’s overkill, I know, but there are times when it lets me do things that would otherwise be a major pain with mode switching, stray cables, and special cases. I’ve just started using the tools for live interviews, and am working on a YouTube series about my projects.


Console Integration

Naturally, not everything is tucked neatly in here, so there are cabling challenges… not only from zone-to-zone, but from the console to all corners of the boat (accommodating any cabinet pull-out for service). There are coax runs from antennas, CAT-5 Ethernet going every which way, audio cables, power, N2K, analog video, controls, sensors… it’s a bit of a mess, really, and a challenge to keep up with documentation. Labeling is critical, and when my ten-year-old Brady ID Pal died recently I bought another one that should last a long time. The cost and ongoing effort pays off many times over when you can actually see what goes where.

There is a second desk on the other side of the lab/studio/salon, initially intended to be a simple office space that would keep clutter away from the console’s skinny desktop. But, in true creeping featuritis style, it has become another Zone of Geekery with 3D printer, movie scanner, blazing-fast PC to support film processing and virtual reality, printers, studio lighting, NUC console for ham radio digital modes, and… oh yeah… my office (with 8 beige file drawers and an antique letter opener to give it a retro look despite all the blinkies).

But the console remains the heart of this beast, and now that it is mechanically almost done, I look forward to completing system integration and putting the machines to use.


I’ll leave you with a slow sweep, since it’s hard to get a sense of it from still images. Cheers from Datawake! 


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Microship Hydraulics

These tattered drawings recently turned up in the lab… and it occurs to me that I have never done a proper article about the rather too-elaborate engineering of the hydraulic systems on the Microship for rudder and landing-gear control. Here is a quick overview of this essential subsystem.


The boat’s hydraulic system is made up of 13 cylinders as well as a calibration manifold. First, here is a dockside photo showing landing gear retracted, and the steering controller on the bow:

dockside-r2ak-testThis is one of the forward landing gear assemblies, showing the cylinder that steers the wheel. Its linear motion is coupled by that cable, which is routed around idlers to a collar that is then coupled via the scissor assembly to the steerable part of the strut (allowing suspension compression).


This has two inputs. One is from the steering assembly on the bow, which uses a winch handle plugged into that molded socket to rotate the cam plate. One cylinder has a follower that tracks the curved slot, and another is actuated by a pin at a calculated distance from the rotation axis. The combination implements the Ackerman steering function, where the inside wheel turns more sharply than the outside wheel on a turn (minimizing scrubbing and the resulting stresses). A third cylinder is controlled by a simple slider with locking pin, biasing one side to pigeon-toe the front wheels and keep the boat from rolling down a hill (we never could come up with decent brakes). This is especially useful on launch ramps.


A secondary pair of controls (simply tee’d into the circuit described above) is on two of the four landing gear deployment levers. When the wheels are retracted on launch, they make an approximate 70° rotation as they tuck up under the solar panels… necessary to clear the water. The aft ones are easier, with fewer moving parts: simple bungees pull them into the proper position when they are no longer being held down by the deployment cables. You can see one of these above the Spinfin pedal-drive unit; the perforated arm is one of the levers controlling landing gear position:


With the gear up, the wheels clear well underway and don’t drag in the water:


The rudder system has two parts… steering and retraction. The T-handles mentioned above make for a very comfortable control system, and simply pivot through a fixture in the “decklets” to a hinged cylinder:


The other input to the rudder is responsible for deployment as well as automatic kick-up in the event of grounding; this is done with a pressure-release valve. This is all located on the daggerboard trunk for easy access:


At the rudder end, this all comes together with a pivoting headstock assembly that carries a precise vertical slot and retraction hinge point. It is shown here retracted; underway it is vertical, supported by those cheeks:


The retraction cylinder can only take it to the level shown above; on the road, the ball-detent pin just above the hinge point is pulled and the rudder is flipped over the deck for protection:


Here is the calibration manifold behind the seat. Each of these stopcocks, when opened, shorts one leg of a circuit to a “bus” that is connected to the reservoir. If two are opened corresponding to a single cylinder, then it can move freely… making it very easy to tweak the positional relationship between input and output. This was commonly done to center the T-handles that control the rudder (with separate circuits for both sides, giving tighter control along with a backup if one were to fail). Also, I had a slow leak in the retraction system, and these valves allowed me to quickly re-calibrate.


The fluid I use is simply… fresh water. Originally, after lots of research, I mixed a fluid that was half propylene glycol and half distilled water, wanting something that would not freeze or support biology but would also not be a mess if spilled. Lubricity is not a huge issue, but compatibility with the various materials was (Buna-N rubber, Delrin, stainless, tubing, and the various fittings). In practice, this was a pain, requiring elevating a tank to get some gravity pressure behind the bleeding process, and pragmatism won. Now there is a simple hose fitting, and I just connect to a nearby bib, open the NPT bleeder ports one at a time, calibrate it, and go sailing. Here you can see one of the bow steering cylinders happily burbling:


Finally, on the road! Here she was in 2013, enroute from my lab to the launch (with my friend Paul Elliott, who helped with the haul):


On the water:


And emerging a few months later, very much in need of a bottom job:


For more information about the Microship, here is an article about her construction. There is also a Microship electronics photo essay similar to this one, with lots of pictures and short descriptions. The tale of her 2103 launch after long stasis is in Microship Revival, and there is a rollicking tale of the Puget Sound mini-expedition 15 years ago.

I’ll close with this shot of the boat being hauled out after a 2015 test sail, when she was considering participation in the Race to Alaska with my friend Nick Wainwright at the helm:


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Video Tour of Datawake by IEEE Spectrum

IEEE Spectrum videographerBack on August 24, I welcomed aboard a delightful visitor named Kristen Clark from IEEE Spectrum, and she spent the afternoon asking good questions… getting me to show her around the boat while the camera rolled. The article just appeared on the IEEE site yesterday, and the video is embedded below… a fun 3-minute snippet of the Datawake project, complete with a cameo by Isabelle! I’m now inspired to do a detailed video walkthrough as soon as the final zone of the console is completed; there has already been lots of progress since this footage was taken:

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