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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

High-Tech Nomad Steve Roberts – N4RVE – W5YI Report

by the late Fred Maia
W5YI Report — November 15, 1991

I first met Roberts a few years ago at the Dayton HamVention where he was selling autographed copies of his book which detailed his bicycle jaunts across the country. He had a booth right across from mine and I got a chance to periodically chat with him… and his lovely traveling companion, Maggie. (He is definitely not a loner!) His book was written out on the road as he pedaled across the country. He certainly has a very interesting lifestyle and I more or less have kept in touch with him since. Roberts hails from Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

His bicycle, which he christened the Winnebiko, is the type you manually pedal. But that is where its conventional features stop. Installed on the bike was an unbelievable array of electronics, computer and communications gadgetry …including ham radio. I have never seen anything like it. It was hard to imagine unless you saw it …a curious blend of old world travel and futuristic electronics! Steve told me it was valued at over $100,000 …and it looked it!

Now Steve has built another bicycle, his third, which he calls the BEHEMOTH. This one, valued at over a million dollars; that’s right, a million dollars! It even has on board fax, cellular telephone, satellite data links and can be navigated using GPS… Global Positioning Satellites! It took four years to build, aided by some 35 volunteers and 150 corporate sponsors. He recently took the bike out on a test run throughout the midwest.

Roberts’ latest acquisition is a “mother ship” which will allow him to take his company — Nomadic Research Labs — to selected trade shows, speaking engagements, public events and company visitations. What started out as a fun-type fantasy has now brought fame …and blossomed into a full time business.

And Roberts and BEHEMOTH are indeed fast becoming well known! The bike has been featured in over 170 magazines in the US and abroad, 180 news paper stories and over a hundred television productions (22 of which were national or international.) Roberts’ own books and quarterly on-the-road magazine (Nomadness) are filled with stories ranging from passionate encounters to cutting-edge technology.

Such well-known publications as USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, Popular Science, Discover, IEEE Spectrum, Time magazine… and television: CBS Morning News, PM Magazine, CNN, ESPN, the Discovery Channel, CBC (Canada)… NHK (Japan) have all covered his escapades. Steve has shown BEHEMOTH at many trade shows including the huge COMDEX computer show four times.

We recently sent Steve an Email message to see if he would consent to an “on-line” interview. He said he would and we sent him a list of questions. Here is his unedited response…

W5YI: What is your technical/educational and employment background and where did you get the idea to construct a high-tech bicycle? Why not a motorcycle? How many miles have you “pedalled’?

N4RVE: The original motivation (1983) was to build a lifestyle that would directly incorporate all my passions: computers, ham radio, networking, bicycles, travel, adventure, publishing, learning… and romance (not necessarily in that order!). To do this, I needed to create tools that would render my physical location irrelevant.

Yes, I could have used a motorcycle (or even a car) but there are other issues involved – aesthetic, physical, and cultural. Motorcycles intimidate people. Any motorized vehicle levels the hills and reduces travel to a turnkey process, making the road merely an obstacle in the way of a goal. (And they’re boring!)

As to background, I’m self-taught, with only a 6-month flirtation with engineering school (essentially irrelevant from current perspective, except perhaps as a warning to keep my own passions uppermost and not let myself get assimilated into a crank-turning approval-seeking system). Passion and curiosity are stronger motivators than fear of tests, anyway, and I’ve been a hobbyist since I was 8. I spent my 20s doing custom industrial control system design (embedded microprocessors in the 1970’s), and in the last 17 years I’ve had about 11 months of employment (which I didn’t particularly enjoy).

I’ve covered about 16,650 miles in the 8 years since I started this. The first 10,000 took 18 months; the next 6,000 about a year; and I’ve just finished a 650-mile test ride on the new machine.

W5YI: When did you construct your first bike? What did it cost?

N4RVE: 1983. The system was my design, though a wizard framebuilder in Columbus, OH (Jack Trumbull) did the frame. The first primitive system was about $8,000 and was financed through a massive yard sale (since I was also in the process of trashing my suburban lifestyle in Ohio).

Essentially, that machine was a recumbent bike with 5-watt solar panel, Model 100 laptop, simple security system, and a CB radio for emergencies (which I described once on Evening/PM Magazine as being “culturally useless”). Actually, it did pay off a couple of times — I ran out of water in a Utah desert and used it to get help from passing truckers.

W5YI: Tell me about your bicycles. What are the values of these vehicles. How are they financed?

N4RVE: That first machine was sleek and efficient in its own clunky way, but didn’t allow me to write while riding. That was the motivation for the second (Winnebiko II), which was simply overlaid on the same frame. By then, I was getting a lot of equipment sponsorship and that smoothed the process considerably.

There is now a third system (BEHEMOTH) that has likewise rendered #2 obsolete. Estimated value of this system, including human time, is a rather frightening $1.2 million. This is, of course, a totally bogus number since it includes years of volunteer human effort, engineering, and help from various companies. Actual out-of-pocket cost is a tiny fraction of that.

W5YI: How did you go about getting support from various corporations? Do you have “assistants* to help you – or is this effort basically just “Steve Roberts.” I note your address shows Sun Microsystems?

N4RVE: This whole project has become a 3-way symbiosis among the bike, the media, and about 150 sponsors. New toys yield interesting applications on the bike, which yield interesting stories, which further pique industry’s interest. I’m just project coordinator, as overloaded as anyone serving a similar role in the business world (though I do get some interesting fringe benefits, like being able to ride it for months at a time… although sometimes, schlepping a 580-pound machine up a mountain doesn’t feel like a benefit!). I’ve also had help from about 35 individuals who have been intrigued enough by various subsystems to contribute spare time.

Sun Microsystems is the leading unix workstation vendor, and has taken an interest in some of the nomadic computing and packaging issues involved in this project. The company has provided a lab and access to resources, including a lot of very creative people here in Silicon Valley.

W5YI: When were you first licensed? Did you become a ham to have communications capability while on the road?

N4RVE: I’m currently a general. I had a novice ticket (WN4KSW) back when I was a kid (12 or so), but it lapsed as I got seduced by the microprocessor revolution (you may recall a time when computers and radios were quite divergent paths…). After being reminded on that first trip of the general horror of 11 meters, I became KA8OVA and began using 2 meters and packet on the second trip. I’ve since upgraded to general and am N4RVE.

W5YI: Did you have a ham radio rig on your first bike? Describe your Amateur Radio installations.

N4RVE: First bike: no ham radio. Second: Yaesu 290 and Pac-Comm TNC, to which I later added a Ten-Tec Argonaut when I upgraded to general in North Carolina.

My third system (BEHEMOTH) has a very extensive station. HF is an ICOM 725, with CMOS Super Keyer, Autek filter, Magic Notch (amazing), and SWR/PWR meter. This feeds a folding dipole made of two Outbacker Junior antennas atop an extendible fiberglass mast attached to the trailer, and performs amazingly well for a bicycle-mobile 7-band HF rig.

VHF and UHF multimode is covered by the Yaesu 290 and 790, an ICOM IC-28 dual-bander goes in my detachable manpack, and an ICOM micro-2AT has been hacked and built into the console for low-power bike-to-bike and local repeater use.

AEA’s ATV unit is also mounted in the trailer, though I have no experience using it yet. And for packet, PacComm TNC’s take care of normal BBS mail and an MFJ-1278 handles AMTOR and APLINK. (I also have a pair of Motorola RNET UHF business band data radios for backpack-to-bike file sharing — much of that traffic involves manuscripts and business Email).

 

W5YI: How useful is ham radio to you while out on the road? Do you have satellite capability? What is your AC/DC power source?

N4RVE: I would describe ham radio as absolutely essential to this lifestyle — not only for the social support but also for emergencies. I broke my trailer frame on a tiny Wisconsin road, and arranged help via some folks on the Sturgeon Bay repeater across Green Bay. An impromptu call for local info led to a delightful 3-day visit with John Glaeser WB9ESH and family. And so on. It’s part of my daily reality.

I’ve played a bit with OSCAR-13 and the Microsats, but cannot currently access them from the bike (antenna limitations only). All power is provided by a 12-volt system primarily charged by a 72-watt solar array on the trailer. It can also be charged by an AC line, a car cigarette lighter, or — soon — reclaimed braking energy.

W5YI: What other communications capability and equipment do you have on the bike?

N4RVE: Perhaps the most dramatic communication system is the Qualcomm OmniTRACS terminal, a 14 GHz satellite earth station that allows me to pass Email via the GTE GSTAR geosynchronous bird. This has been interfaced locally to the bike’s Macintosh, and at the San Diego hub to internet. The net effect is a transparent path from the bike’s console to any net-connected computer in the world. Obviously, I have to limit access to this to avoid wearing out my welcome on the transponder — we’ll be using it primarily for communication with my base office and key correspondents.

My internet address at Sun ([email protected]) currently receives 20-40 pieces of mail a day, and I’m badly overloaded. (Why, then, did I just give it to you? Well, out of that overload emerges the occasional interesting contact….)

I also carry the obligatory cellular phone, along with a CellBlazer modem and a Microcom 1042. These allow high-speed net connections (up to about 10K baud), and there’s also a fax board. By the time I’m on the road again, we should be using a protocol called Dialup IP to allow full use of internet services when I’m near cell sites, in addition to the Email-only coverage though the continental US via satellite.

Speaking of satellites, I carry a Trimble GPS receiver, which yields lat-long, elevation, speed, and time to staggering accuracy. This data is useful for the security system (which, among other things, can call 911 and give its location via speech synthesizer if it’s moved without the right password). Hopefully, by the next trip it will be interfaced with the DeLorme map CDROM to yield a graphic display of location and access to my contact database via map icons.

And yes, I do still have a CB — since there are times and places where help is much more likely available from a passing trucker than from an unmonitored repeater. I haven’t turned it on yet, but it’s available.

W5YI: You do a lot of writing while out on the road. How do you do this? What equipment/software do you use? Do you write and pedal at the same time?

N4RVE: I write and pedal at the same time via a binary handlebar keyboard. It’s a chording scheme devised by Infogrip (on the Winnebiko II I used my own modified ASCII code, which was slower). A task on a dedicated DOS machine deals with this, and another passes the text through a macro package called PRD+, allowing effective throughput on straight text of roughly 100 wpm. The copy is transmitted through the bike’s network to the FORTH bicycle control processor, which then emulates the Mac keyboard via a FET matrix.

W5YI: How often do you “access” your communications modes while out on the road?

N4RVE: That depends entirely on what’s happening. Sometimes it’s nice to hide; sometimes the virtual world of electronic contact is much more real than the passing landscape. Just depends on mood and the vagaries of this strange nomadic lifestyle.

W5YI: Briefly describe the various electronic wizardry you have on your bike? Who designed or thought it up?

N4RVE: A brief description of BEHEMOTH is an oxymoron. Easy answer first: it’s essentially my design, though that’s terribly misleading. Better to say that it’s my integration of lots of amazing wizardry provided by industry, all tied together by crosspoint audio and serial matrices, a trio of FORTH processors, and as little custom logic as possible.

There’s a heads-up display in the helmet, as well as ultrasonic sensors for head-tracking cursor-positioning on the Mac. A Setcom helmet audio system is interfaced with the audio crosspoint network for software-driven access to any device, including all the ham gear. Active helmet cooling allows me to pull about 75 watts from my body on a hot day.

Pneumatically actuated landing gear provide lateral stability on steep hills — when the 105-speed transmission is in granny gear. Speech synthesis via an Audapter allows any text source to be piped to ears as well as eyes, and a Covox voice recognition system handles commands. Taillights are clusters of high-brightness LEDs. A killer stereo system with shock-mounted CD player, dual 18-watt amp, and waterproof Blaupunkt speakers keeps me motivated. There are 4 hard disk drives, and the computers are all networked together. Active power management keeps batteries happy. And a HyperCard application sits on top of all this, providing a graphic user interface to the bike that’s segmented into “views” of subsystems, synthesizing FORTH command lines to isolate me from the harsh reality of actually running this crazy thing.

W5YI: Tell about your latest “bike-pedition.” Did you travel alone? How many miles do you travel daily? Did you get much media coverage?

N4RVE: I just returned from a 3-month shakedown on the new system – through parts of Iowa and then from Joliet, IL to Escanaba, MI. As always, it was an adventure, punctuated by romance, terror, enchanting learning curves, and more. I spent a couple of days at Fermilabs, traveled for 3 weeks with a young lady who read about this in Discover Magazine and got a serious case of tire-itch, and visited all kinds of interesting folk. Daily mileage seems to average about half what it was on my first trip (back when the bike was about 185 pounds) — now 30-40 miles a day, assuming moderate terrain and no fascinating encounters. And yes, media coverage is fairly heavy, though I’ve become exhausted with talking to every local paper and TV station. I kept a relatively low profile this time, with the exception of NBC’s Earth Journal, First Look, NHK from Japan, and a few magazine interviews.

W5YI: Tell about your “mother ship.”

N4RVE: One of the major practical problems with this lifestyle involves the existence of a base lab. Even though I carry a digital oscilloscope (Createc), Fluke DVM, Ultratorch butane soldering irons, and a robust R&D stock, I still need real space to do a major project. In the past, this has always meant stopping for months at a time and setting up a lifestyle — not always in an area where I want to be.

I just acquired a “mother ship” — a 20-foot Wells Cargo trailer and a GMC van to pull it. This is NOT an alternative to the bike by any means, but a way to have my support lab and inventory in the same general end of the world as I am, and painlessly take BEHEMOTH to selected trade shows and other events.

Naturally, I can’t leave the new machine alone. The mother ship is becoming a fourth layer in the network hierarchy: manpack plugs into bike, which plugs into mother ship, which plugs into a real or virtual home-base (internet). Solar panels on the roof, a SPARCstation and dashboard laptop, audio network hooks to the bike, and external antennas will all contribute to the sensation of simply docking the loony excursion module into a host system when high-speed relocation is necessary.

W5YI: Where do you go from here? What are your plans for the future? What new features are you think ing about adding?

N4RVE: I’ll be on the road via mother ship in April, beginning a circuit of trade shows, hamfests, company visits, and media events — all punctuated by relatively short (a few hundred miles) bike tours. Between now and then, I’m at the Sun lab, trying to finish the key subsystems before compressing 1200 square feet into 160. I’m now planning the 1992 tour, and would like to hear from anyone who’s interested in having an on-site visit from BEHEMOTH and wants to discuss speaking/appearance fees and logistics.

Future bike systems? I keep thinking that with advances in technology, it should get LIGHTER, not heavier. But this is such a seductive industry… I keep increasing function-to-weight ratio by conceptual orders of magnitude, often forgetting the effect on my legs. It is astonishing that a 580-pound bike is manageable, but I must confess that it would be MORE pleasant if it were about half that. Future systems will take this into account. Incidentally, BEHEMOTH is an acronym for “Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine… Only Too Heavy”