Make it Anywhere With a Mobile Lab

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.


12 thoughts on “Make it Anywhere With a Mobile Lab

  1. StefanJ says:

    I met Steven at a COMDEX show in Las Vegas. Probably in 1989. He had one of his bicycles there.

    I lost track of my copy of his book decades ago . . . hey Steven, are you selling copies? Reading about the incident with the busted open Sara Lee cake truck is worth the cover price alone.

  2. Steven Roberts says:

    Stefan – thanks for the comment on the Sara Lee… that was indeed a bizarre experience! I have a very few copies of the book, and will email you.

    There are also a few used copies kicking around on Amazon, last time I checked… but one of these days I need to republish it via CreateSpace, fleshed out with the tales of the rest of the adventure and a few geek interludes.

    That COMDEX was fun, with 21 miles of exhibit frontage if I recall correctly. My feet hurt just thinking about it!


  3. rallen says:

    I worked for almost a year doing avionics test equipment calibrations in portable labs. They were built into 34 foot utility trailers, and gave us the ability to provide metrology and limited repair services for our customers on-site. A lot of our equipment (oscilloscopes, DVMs, Spectrum Analyzer, Signal Generators, etc..) were rack-mounted and fastened into the trailers, with storage racks mounted opposite to counter-balance the weight. Our rolling chairs and equipment carts were secured with bungee cords to eye-bolts for transport, and our Metcal’s, smaller standards, and specialized gear (pulse gen’s, etc…) were secured in anti-static padded bins.

    Have you accidentally destroyed any of your equipment due to road conditions? We had several of our inductance standards destroyed by the wonderful potholes in PA. The rough ride actually knocked open the storage cabinet, spilled the bin, and it’s contents went dancing all over the floor. Totally ruined them in minutes.

    I like the power setup with the solar panels, generator, and shore-power. Ours was very similar, but without the solar, and the generator was a 5KW Onan diesel. Do you have any difficulty moving your lab with normal consumer vehicles? Our labs were so heavy, we had to use Ford F500 trucks and get CDL’s (Commercial Drivers License) and keep log books.

  4. Steven Roberts says:

    That sounds like an interesting system. How did the NBS-traceability of the standards survive the high-vibration environment and thermal range of a vehicle parked outside? Were entire racks shock-isolated and the trailer HVAC-equipped? Short of the destruction incidents you mention, I’m curious about the general ability of rigidly rack-mounted gear to stay in spec… though of course the high-frequency acceleration should be filtered pretty well by the suspension unless it bottoms.

    I use Lord Mounts (bonded rubber) for delicate-but-heavy things. I’ll describe it in a later post of the series, but one unit, the “black box” for the ham radio, is mounted on a shock-isolated platform (probably overkill since it’s made for mobile use).

    In previous mobile-geekery projects including a smaller lab like this one and the various bikes, I opened up most of the electronics and stabilized inertially risky items (electrolytics, inductors, and the like) with gobs of silicone. Amazing how a few thousand miles of vibration can sever component leads and propagate cracks from stress risers like square corners.

    Mmmm, the 5KW diesel sounds nice… very different scale from mine! I do have a monster genset on the boat, but for the trailer it’s just the little Honda.

    As to the tow vehicle… it’s a standard 2WD Dodge Ram 2500 (3/4 ton) pickup with load-equalizing hitch. I do check tongue weight occasionally with a Sherline gauge.

    I’m writing a book about all this, so if you have any commentary, photos, and war stories “from the professional side” I’d love to include them!

  5. Pyrotom says:

    One of the problems I’ve found with most utility trailers is that – being a member of the over 6 foot club – they just are not tall enough. But Wells Cargo, at least, will make taller trailers on request. My trailer has an extra foot of height built in, so that I can stand up without banging my head on the ceiling. Since I mainly use the trailer for hauling fireworks gear, which involves moving heavy gun racks in and out, this has been a real back-saver. The down side is more sail area, which does impact milage somewhat.

    1. Steven Roberts says:

      I completely agree… I’m 6′ 4″ and it’s a huge issue for me. My trailer has the extra-height option as well; I can walk comfortably inside.

      As to the sail area, I’ve found that the Nose Cone option on these things is essential. I had a chance to compare with my first one (a 20-footer back around 1991) – adding the cone improved fuel economy by about 2 mpg, which really added up as I was on an open-ended speaking tour with the bike. It also dramatically reduced the swaying from passing trucks. Many years later, I had a 44-footer for a while (which I should have kept) – it also had the nose cone and towed like a dream.

      As to being tall… it can be a bit of a curse sometimes, as I found out when shopping for a sailboat. I should have gotten myself bonzai’d as a teenager; it would have saved a bundle in later life. One honesty-impaired yacht broker actually tried to tell me that insufficient headroom on a boat is a GOOD thing: “in a seaway, you can brace with your neck muscles and have both hands free!”

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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. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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