As ham radio became an ever-greater part of my technomadics, I started writing for 73 and other publications. This cover story was a fun one, and the photo was taken by Karen Greene on Sullivan’s Island off the coast of South Carolina. I’m hunkered down with my HP Portable PLUS laptop and the much-loved Ten-Tec Argonaut 515, and my partner Maggie (KA8ZYW) is holding an AEA 10-meter DX Handy. Fun times… you can click the cover to embiggen, and continue to read the full story below.
Tales of a High-Tech Nomad
by Steven K. Roberts KA8OVA (now N4RVE)
73 Magazine – February 1988
I think the dream started when I was a WN4 back in grade school: Someday I would wander the world on an electronic bicycle bedecked with radio gear and arcane instrumentation. It was a delightful fantasy, fueled by Carl & Jerry and the hobby rags of the day… but I’m sure I didn’t really believe that as an adult I would live full-time on a pedal-powered solar ham shack with five computers and 1.7 megabytes of memory—or that I’d be able to digitally link cross-country via satellite while pedaling along a quiet country road. Like millions of other kids, I just had a passion for knobs, switches, and bikes.
But twenty years later in the spring of 1983, chained to a suburban desk in Genericsville, USA, it suddenly occurred to me that my old fantasy was ripening—that the tools becoming available could actually allow me to maintain a freelance-writing and consulting business while traveling full time. My product, after all, is information—and information has no mass. So why attach it to things that do? All I needed was a laptop computer, a network for data communications, a few watts of solar power, and a comfortable bicycle, robust and efficient enough to carry it all.
Driven by obsession, I set to work compressing my lifestyle into a rolling system of waterproof packs. Six months later, I pedaled away from Columbus into a new life of daily change… with all I owned either bungeed onto my 8-foot-long recumbent or connected to it via modem.
For nearly two years I traveled America, covering ten thousand miles in a freewheeling adventure that ranged from blazing passion to aching loneliness, from bizarre encounters to private moments of life-changing insight. Through it all, I kept writing on my H-P portable computer—yielding dozens of magazine articles and my fourth book (Computing Across America—The Bicycle Odyssey of a High-tech Nomad). It was indeed the fulfiilment of my fantasy, but there were three big problems:
- I grew tired of traveling alone.
- I couldn’t use the computer while riding.
- I had no ham radio.
The Winnebiko II
During a one-year layover, both supported and motivated to hit the road by a real job, I completely rebuilt the Winnebiko… added extensive ham radio and computer equipment… and found a new girlfriend (Maggie KA8ZYW) willing to trash her lifestyle, get a ham license, and move to a bicycle. Life hasn’t been the same since.
The system shown in the photos has been called a rolling caricature of the information age—it’s a self-contained machine that has been my home and office for over 15,000 miles. Using a binary handlebar keyboard I can edit text, manage files, update the bike software, or even run a packet QSO while pedaling down the road. Twenty watts of solar modules charge 17 amp-hours of batteries, with a box of high-efficiency switching power supplies generating 5 subsidiary voltages. A security system can respond to motion by uttering a warning message through the speech synthesizer, setting off a siren, or paging me up to 3 miles away—and I can control many of the bike’s functions via touch-tone commands from a 2-meter HT. A network of five CMOS microcomputers reconfigures itself on the fly to support the activity in progress. And the ham gear has grown to include a pair of 2-meter rigs, a 10-meter handheld, a full HF QRP system, and a packet station complete with mailbox software for unattended operation.
A serious trade-off in any pedal-powered contrivance involves gravity, however, and the Winnebiko is heavily affected. Total system weight without my body is 275 pounds (which is one of the reasons for the 54-speed gearing system and disc brakes). Overall length including the trailer is about 12 feet—matched by the De Felice recumbent piloted by Maggie. Pedaling side-by-side, holding hands with our antenna-flags waving in the breeze and solar panels sparkling blue, we look for all the world like a rolling showpiece of alien technology.
So how does this system work? Why am I doing this? What’s next? This article kicks off a series by introducing the Winnebiko II from seven perspectives…
The most celebrated feature of the bike from the media standpoint has always been its information-processing capability. The original motivation behind all this was the need to make intelligent business use of my pedaling time—for every 20,000 miles translates into about 2,000 hours (a full business year).
I have always carried a laptop, of course, and still do. The Hewlett-Packard Portable Plus is a robust MS-DOS machine with 1.2 megabytes of RAMdisk and all major applications software baked into ROM… and I carry a battery-powered 3.5-inch disk drive for archives. A daily routine involves hooking the HP to the nearest telephone and logging onto the GEnie™ network for my mail, with everything from reader responses to manuscripts routinely passing through my modem.
But however wonderful the 9-pound machine is when I’m in camp, it becomes a piece of high-tech luggage when I’m rolling. Somewhere in West Texas with a deadline on my tail, it abruptly occurred to me that I could vastly improve my effectiveness if I could only write while riding.
Capturing ideas on-the-road now involves two other computers. A Radio Shack Model 100, heavily modified, has been built into the control console, with its screen located at top center to minimize eye movement. The tiny 32K memory that came with the machine is now only workspace, for with Traveling Software’s “Booster Pak” I have upgraded the lowly Model 100 to a quarter-megabyte of RAMdisk—plus extensive ROM software including an on-line dictionary, tree-structured operating system, database manager, and even a brisk asteroids game for arcade-style entertainment on those long desert highways.
But where’s the keyboard? In the handlebars, of course! Eight waterproof buttons nestled on the underside of the grips comprise an efficient binary input device, with the feeling of typing comparable to playing a flute. A Motorola 68HC11 microprocessor (the bicycle control processor, or BCP) spends much of its time decoding and debouncing the handlebar inputs, mapping them onto the virtual switch matrix that the Model 100 still believes is attached to its keyboard port. A few 74HC chips complete the interface, waiting for the appropriate column strobe for each character and delivering the corresponding row codes.
When I’m on a roll with all this, I can type comfortably at 30 words per minute—about half my normal QWERTY speed.
The BCP has a number of other jobs as well. It manages the communications among the other processors (including the packet TNC) by issuing control bits to a crossbar network of analog switches. In “remote mode,” it responds to touch-tone commands received by the Yaesu 290—speaking to passers-by or performing security functions. It monitors system variables ranging from battery health to error conditions, and it determines the overall “flavor” of my interaction with the bike.
All in all, the architecture of this Grand Turing Machine gives me maximum flexibility: the software simplicity of a multi-processor environment, a flexible hierarchy that supports ongoing expansion, and a battery-powered system that can be phased down to minimize current drain.
Perhaps the most entertaining confluence of digital reliability and radio black magic these days is packet, and it has become an essential component of my traveling circuits. There’s something deliciously mad about playing NET/ROMulan while cranking hard through the hills of North Carolina, sending text through the satellite wormhole while causing miniature waves of future shock among passing locals.
On the practical side, my bicycle-mobile packet station has become an excellent door-opener in ham communities across the nation. I can sign onto a local PBBS from a hundred miles out of town or find myself in a live packet QSO while inbound. On many occasions, I have sent NTS traffic to new friends from the road, thanking them for their recent hospitality and letting them know we survived the City. And, of course, the growing packet mail network has become an important layer in the closest thing I have to a hometown: Dataspace.
The TNC on the bike is, of course, CMOS—the TNC-200 from Pac-Comm. With its LEDs remoted to the console and its on-board power supplies disabled, this product has been a trouble-free data communications link. And I have recently added custom Model 100 PBBS software with some unusual features. In addition to taking messages and paging me, this system offers short downloadable system descriptions, beacon management from the menu, and remote control or status-checking from a second TNC. Why a BBS on a bicycle? It’s one of the best features of the system. I can now arrive in an unfamiliar town, initiate a beacon identfying the bicycle-mobile packet station, and stop for dinner—then emerge from the restaurant an hour later to find mail waiting on the bike from local packeteers! The welcome message explains enough about what we’re doing to whet the appetite of any serious technoid.
But there’s an interesting problem with all this mobile packet equipment. How can I have a stable network address while moving around the country? On-board PBBS or no, without constant juggling of everybody’s forwarding tables and the White Pages, I’d have messages chasing me all over the US of A. Indeed, this is what was happening until recently—address management was getting to be such a nuisance that I was seriously considering limiting my packet activity to local contacts only.
But I now have a stable home BBS: the address is KA8OVA @ WA4ONG. Jim DeArras in Richmond is WA4ONG, and his system is a very active 4-port BBS with Buckmaster’s new online CD-ROM call directory. Any mail for KA8OVA or KA8ZYW gets forwarded into a local file, which is automatically transmitted to my mailbox (WORDY) on the GEnie™ network. While online, Jim’s C program also forwards any mail from me into the packet gateway. The whole system is elegant and low-overhead—with packet messages simply showing up in my electronic IN-basket no matter where I happen to be. Ain’t technology wonderful?
Incidentally, I don’t need to sit on the bike and play the handlebar keyboard to run packet. A front-panel DB-9 accepts a cable to the HP. from which I can directly interact with any of the four console system processors. This is the mode I use when in the tent, beside the road, or parked in a host’s garage.
It’s very difficult to imagine how I ever traveled without 2-meter FM. Alone during that first 10,000 miles, I must have passed through the coverage areas of thousands of repeaters—vaguely sensing the electronic community swirling around me but never connecting. I seldom lacked company, of course, given the bizarre 2-wheeled door-opener sparkling beneath me, but those endless hours alone on the road… pedaling… pedaling.
A lot has changed. Built into the control console is Yaesu’s new FT-290R multimode 2-meter rig—the ideal choice for this application. Every automotive transceiver I found was a power hog. Every handheld rig bristled with controls on all sides and was thus impossible to panel-mount. But the 290 is intended for portable operation (roughly 100 mA standby), it’s smooth and easy to operate, and it lends itself well to console installation and interfacing.
Operation is easy. There is a Plantronics headset built into my bicycle helmet (the “brain interface unit”), and a push-to-talk switch in the left handlebar just under my thumb. For fixed operation, I simply plug in the standard Yaesu touch-tone mike.
Speaking of touch-tones, I have added an SSI-20C90 chip between the radio and the BCP. The telephone-grade pad shown in the console photo has always been a bit of a pain to use, so I have switched to software-controlled dialing. From the handlebar keys, a special command tells the processor to buffer a sequence, which is then transmitted to the radio upon receipt of termination code. Since repeaters differ widely in timing requirements, there is also a pass-through mode with an adjustable “software one-shot” on the PTT line.
The 20C90 chip receives touch-tones as well, and it is this feature that allows me to remote-control the bike through the Yaesu. From my HT, I transmit short command sequences which tell the BCP to do any of the following:
- Speak one of 32 pre-programmed utterances via the Votrax
- Sound the siren for N seconds
- Transmit local audio from the bike for N seconds
- Pipe received audio to the console speaker
- Turn yellow flasher on or off
- Enable/disable security system
The value of all this is most apparent in a “security” mode. When I’m away from the machine, I don’t want to worry about what’s going on around it. If my beeper sounds, I simply tell the bike to transmit 10 seconds of local audio, then select an appropriate speech string for it to say to the people standing around. “Do not touch, or you will be vaporized by a laser beam!” is a big favorite, as is: “Hi there, pretty girl. Would you like to ride on me?” If it becomes necessary to genuinely intimidate someone messing with the bike. I dispense with the cute stuff and instead trigger a 130-dB siren (which can also be set to happen automatically upon motion detection).
Maggie has a 2-meter rig on her machine as well—Yaesu’s original 290, similarly installed on her front panel and powered by a solar-charged battery. We spend most of our on-the-road time on 145.52 simplex, and can honestly state that ham radio has saved our relationship: it’s hard to imagine sharing a bicycle tour without some form of radio communications!
While 2-meter FM is a great tool for routine local conversation, it lacks the thrill and mystery of HF (Yes, you kilowatts out there, there really is mystery in the airwaves). I agonized over it for months and finally did it. My bike trailer now contains a Ten-Tec Argonaut 515 with all the attachments, a bag of dipoles and coax, a 4 amp-hour SAFT NiCd, and the new “DX Handy” 10-meter monobander from AEA.
Weight and power restrictions naturally constrain me to QRP operation, but it fits the whole spirit of a bicycle odyssey. In the first month of occasional use (which translates into getting on the air whenever I’m in one place long enough to finish urgent writing projects and throw a dipole in the trees), I worked Germany and 15 states—plus the Canary Islands on 10-meter sideband with the 2-watt AEA handheld. Have you ever really thought about this?
Well, think about it. You take some sliced rock, expose it to sunlight, store the resulting electrical current in a small box of chemicals—then shake it up to a few Megahertz, modulate it with your voice or wiggling fingers, and shove it out into a wire. Total power dissipated is about that of a penlight or small Christmas tree bulb.
Through a process that can best be described as magic (despite efforts to the contrary in textbooks), your signal disturbs a slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thousands of miles away, a stranger notices this and invokes a similar process to call you by name. Isn’t this a bit wondrous? Somehow, doing it all with solar power and a bicycle-borne mini-station emphasizes the drama… for I’ve grown quite jaded with 99%-reliable network communications after 5 years of life in Dataspace. But chatting across the planet with a whisper of RF is an event worthy of celebration… and this highlights a major gap in the tools of our microculture:
How, exactly, do you express enthusiasm on CW? Working VE7BRR in 150 Mile House, British Columbia, on 2 watts from the East Coast one night, I was moved to exclaim my delight. But there’s no exclamation mark in the Morse code! I propose that we fix that, at least informally, by adopting the new symbol WW (short for WOW), as the Morse exclamation point. Next time you find yourself about to default to the boring old “HI HI” when what you really mean is hotdamn! try didahdahdidahdah.
I suggest this as a reminder that underneath the technical gee-whiz and contact tallying there lies a human element—which translates into a major resource of friends and intelligent contacts around the world. Once we get past the Name, QTH, RST, RIG, ANT, and WX data, there’s a lot to learn… unknown doors to open… and many new friends to be had.
But keeping track of all those people gets to be an interesting problem, especially when you live on a bicycle. One of the HP’s jobs is to maintain my “hospitality database,” a key resource for finding places to sleep. (The latest repeater directory helps, too, as do packet node lists.) But now I also carry a call directory of all US hams on microfiche, produced by Buckmaster Publishing. Three separate packs with a total of 27 4 x 6-inch fiches allow me to search by call, name, or city—a priceless resource in a venture such as this where the bottom line always seems to be measured in human terms.
So what’s ahead for the bike’s HF system? I’m about to have a go at mobile 10-meter CW operation—using the handlebar key board and the Model 100 to generate code and the console LCD to display incoming and outgoing text. With the sunspots coming around, things are going to get mighty strange in that band…
Solar Power System
“So how do you power that radio?” It’s a common question on the local repeaters, but the answer goes far beyond the basic triad of photovoltaic modules, charge controllers, and batteries. My entire existence—entertainment, business, and road survival—depends upon a stable electrical power system.
A key word here is redundancy. There are two Solarex 10-watt photovoltaic modules charging a pair of 5-amp-hour lead-acid batteries (no NiCds here—the duty cycles are too random). One battery is dedicated to computers, and the other runs lights and the Yaesu 290. Console switches allow the panels to be swapped relative to the batteries—or the batteries to be swapped relative to the loads. This arrangement allows the computer battery to become a backup for the lights during long night rides… and it also lets me compensate for uneven illumination on the two panels since the rear PV module is almost fully shaded when I’m southbound this time of year. Charge management is handled by a trivial zener/check diode circuit.
Sometimes it’s necessary to charge from the AC line, especially after extended rainy periods or marathon night rides. A dedicated LH Research switching power supply is built in, with console switches determining which battery gets to benefit from the power line. To eliminate a heavy current-limiter, I simply switch the mode of the headlight when charging the batteries from AC—putting it in series with the switcher. A soft glow tells me I’m getting about 400 mA.
The system described so far yields a pair of self-maintaining 12-volt bike system power buses, but there are a few other requirements. The HF rig, as mentioned, has its own NiCd (deep-cycling is appropriate here, unlike in the console). And the HP computer has about 2.5 amp-hours of lead-acid battery (25 hours worth), which can be fed solar current by a cable to the trailer or AC by a plug-in charger.
Subsidiary voltages—five of them—are produced by a small aluminum box of switching supplies, all running from 12 volts and switched in and out of micropower standby mode as needed. These are based on Linear Technologies LT-1070 chips running at about 50 kHz, and were created by Glenn Glassner of Columbus, Ohio. Producing up to 3 amps of 5 volts and 1 amp each of 3, 6, 9, and -12, this efficient unit takes care of all loads in the Winnebiko II system.
I can monitor all this with an Acculex digital panel meter, a delightful little unit that requires absolutely no overhead and no noticeable supply current. You can see it in the control panel photo, displaying .28 amps of net charge current—along with a neighboring thumbwheel switch that feeds it any of the system power buses, the output of either LM10 charge current monitor, or the input from a front-panel test jack.
The bike’s electrical loads are diverse. All voltages appear on front-panel jacks for accessories like the micro-TV or tent light— and various forms of charge current are likewise available to handle external batteries. The 5-volt supply is heavily filtered for the logic boards, the 6-volt supply runs the Model 100, and the 3-volt supply takes care of entertainment electronics. And the 12, well: it runs headlight, dimmable helmet/console light, tail light, red trailer flashers, yellow barricade flasher, siren, security system. 2-meter rig, an occasionally handy CB, and even a cooling fan for the greenhouse that exists between the dark blue forward solar panel and the clear Lexan™ fairing. Naturally, with all the potential for problems in this difficult mobile environment, all supplies are fused, switched, current-limited, and filtered.
Packaging and Maintenance
This is one of those issues that can take an otherwise solid design and quickly turn it into scrap. The Winnebiko II control system has withstood thousands of miles of heat, cold, vibration, potholes, crashes, condensation, lightning, static, human abuse, and most recently, a pickup-truck door in Whiteville, NC. Even when ragged Washington, DC, roads rattled my fillings and bent the unbendable 48-spoke undished wheel, the BCP kept on ticking, flashing its little green “OK” LED in blissful ignorance of the brutal pounding going on around it.
The entire console system unfolds for service, and can be removed from the bike by popping three toggle clamps, unplugging six waterproof Lemo connectors, and lifting straight up from the padded 7075 aluminum support platforms. Years of industrial control system design taught me the value of equipment serviceability, for no matter how perfect a prototype may seem it is but a rough approximation of what it will someday become. That has certainly been the case here—bike control software is now at revision level 15.2, and my once-pristine documentation binder has been scarred by countless erasures, patches, afterthoughts, and TO-DO lists. No complex system is ever 100% complete… or correct.
With all this in mind, I built the system to support extensive diagnostics and development. Only rarely have actual repairs been necessary, but more times than I care to remember I have hunkered over the system in a campground with logic probe in hand, obsessed with getting the latest enhancement to work. Documentation is always a major issue, of course, so in addition to the paper binder of schematics I carry a miniature Keyan microfiche viewer with a large collection of IC databooks and system manuals on film. (And what high-tech bicycle would be complete without a robust “junkbag” of 74HC chips and tinkering stock?)
The control panel itself began life as a sheet of .090 aluminum, with the sides folded back and the corners TIG welded. I used a Bridgeport milling machine to cut the holes, and made press-fit abrasion-resistant Lexan™ windows to cover the LCDs. The unit was then bead-blasted and anodized, lettered with dry transfers through a two-step centering process and protected with 35 coats of Krylon, interspersed with five baking cycles.
So how does it stand the weather? On the road, a major issue is rain—which occurs very reliably whenever we camp or hit the road after a sunny indoor layover. The front panel can be protected with a clear Velcro-on cover that forms an effective seal with both fabric side curtains and the console aluminum itself. All this is under the fairing, and further steps have been taken to insure that no splashed or wheel-flung water can work its way up into the electronics. So far, the arrangement has kept the elements out of the system… and I often wish that my body could receive the same level of protection.
Fortunately, skin is highly water-resistant.
Life on the Road
Finally, let’s take a quick look at the lifestyle that results from all this.
Thanks to communications systems ranging from computer networking to ham radio, it no longer matters where in the country we are. Business goes on. The term “wheeling and dealing” has taken on new meaning… and freelance writing no longer keeps me off the streets. As long as there’s a little sunshine to charge my batteries, I have reliable human contact and computing power. As long as there’s a phone line for the modem, I can run the company.
The net effect of all this is that “home” has become a three-part affair, a surprisingly tangible substrate for my nomadic existence. The most obvious component is our whole electronic cottage on wheels, of course—the 500-pound assemblage of tools, toys, and bicycles that keeps us going. Then there’s America itself, a 3.5-million square mile neighborhood that we prowl slowly from season to season. And then, profoundly important but very hard to explain to the media, there is the multilayered network of human contacts — part Dataspace, part ham radio — that keeps the loneliness at bay.
You see, we never really leave home at all. It’s inside us, around us, permeating our daily existence like water and sweat, fresh air and exhaust. The road has come to represent stability: a strange but deeply familiar blend of freedom and security. This is perhaps the greatest surprise of the journey—the discovery that change is an addiction and that the pleasure in new friendship never ends. With a bikeload of networking and ham radio gear, there will never be a shortage of either.
So I’ll see you online… on the road… or on the air — and 73s from somewhere out there!
Interested in amateur radio? Prepare for the technician-class license test easily using the Ham Radio License Manual
Here’s a photo of the opened console of the Winnebiko II, showing much of the hardware described in this article:
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