Make it Anywhere With a Mobile Lab

nomadHead_2.jpgAnyone who’s followed my writing over the years, in the Whole Earth Catalog, Mondo 2000, Wired, and here on MAKE, knows my admiration for our next guest, Steven K. Roberts. Steve was definitely one of the people who got me interested in hardware hacking, in the 1980s. Being more artistically- than technically-inclined (but no less fascinated and inspired by science and tech), he showed me how you can smudge the boundaries between art and technology, in a way that I think most 21st century makers have no trouble understanding. This leaking of margins between traditionally separate and frequently estranged sensibilities is so beautifully encapsulated in Steve’s oft-quoted saying: “Art without engineering is dreaming; engineering without art is calculating.”

Since his high-tech bike projects throughout the 1980s, Winnebiko and BEHEMOTH, and his more recent high-tech, tricked-out amphibious and watercraft vehicles, he seemed the perfect candidate for us to tap for our Alt.Transportation theme. Through his three decades of work as Nomadic Research Labs, Steve has literally written the book on alternative, personal transpo — several in fact, including Computing Across America and the recent Reaching Escape Velocity.

Steve has kindly agreed to do some guest authoring for us about his always-inspiring exploits, starting with this piece on his awesome new mobile lab, aka the Polaris Project. Please give a warm Make: Online welcome to Steve Roberts! — Gareth

Make it anywhere with a mobile lab

By Steven K. Roberts

There are lots of reasons why a fully portable lab might be worth considering: a lack of workspace in your house, maintaining continuity through a move, hauling your toolset to a client site, conjuring a nomadic hackerspace community that can coalesce around projects, “bugging out” without losing effectiveness, creating a private shop without construction legalities… or just because it’s efficient, cool, and away from distractions.


In my case, I had an absurd logistical dilemma. I’m trying to complete an intensively geeky sailboat project (Nomadness), but my house and shop are on an island with no moorage. A four-hour round trip between home and boat proved to be an insurmountable challenge: I would arrive at the marina, all set for a few days of hacking away at the to-do list, then immediately run into a missing part or fabrication job that required tools back home. OK, back-burner that job, move on to the next, encounter a similar problem. Repeat until exhausted. Hang around visiting other sailors for a day, then drive back to the lab with an even longer to-do list and a sense of frustration.

After over a year of getting too little done, I realized that the solution should have been obvious up front: build a mobile lab, rent out the real estate, and move all operations to wheel estate.

Thus began the Polaris project, a tight and efficient electronics lab and workshop built into a 24-foot utility trailer — a distillation of my sprawling 3000-square-foot building (originally the Microship lab). Ancient dusty inventory parked on shelves was abandoned en masse, and countless tooling redundancies were eliminated as I applied years of experience to building a workspace focused on current activities instead of the “might need it someday” mentality that had spawned a shop overflowing with dormant tonnage.

Almost immediately I found that I prefer working in the new mobile lab, and it has quickly become much more than just a miniature of the old one. It contains a ham radio station with deployable antennas, robust security and networking tools, a marine-grade stereo with embedded iPod and Sirius satellite, excellent lighting, a dedicated Mac, and all the parts for upcoming boat projects. Resources include a cabinet of hand and small power tools, drill press, folding table saw, sander/grinder, compressor with a few air tools, bench vise, wire-feed MIG and gas welders, industrial sewing machine, and (very soon) a CNC router. The main lab bench offers a 4-channel Tektronix scope, Metcal soldering station, stereo microscope, power supplies, a stock of Arduino goodies, and the usual suite of small test instruments. And the inventory, at last count, fills 869 drawers — including a wall of small-parts cabinets that are secured by a folding 8-foot whiteboard when underway.

Power is a huge issue, since there’s no handy outlet in the marina parking lot. This led to a more complex system than I would have otherwise considered:


The rig includes a sinewave inverter/charger, 240-watt solar array with charge manager, 30-amp shore power cable, 2000-watt Honda generator, AGM battery bank, and both AC and DC distribution panels corresponding to parallel lighting and utility circuits. It is configured like a typical marine power system, scaled to support untethered operation for two-three days without any charge sources (assuming no heavy equipment operation). In a pinch, lacking sun or shore power, I move the little Honda to a shelf on the tongue and plug in a short pigtail cable.

Naturally, everything must be able to accommodate the dynamics of being on the road, so all the furniture (mostly well-built old steel stuff) is bolted down. Every drawer or cabinet has a locking method, and a pre-flight checklist by the door helps make sure I don’t do something stupid that would result in a parts gumbo on the floor after a few bumpy miles.


I’ve been graciously invited by MAKE to guest author about this system, so over the next few weeks, I’ll offer practical tips for taking your own show on the road (or at least getting it out of the house!). The next installment in this series explores the mobile substrate.



Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn