A scientist builds the ultimate SUV for field research

By Brad Lemley and Adam Bartos
Jun 1, 2003 12:00 AMJul 19, 2023 3:49 PM


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"A Humvee is a toy compared to this," says Bran Ferren of his ultra-rugged MaxiMog base vehicle. From a distance it may look like a typical military vehicle, but in reality, the tops of the tires reach to a point as high as the average man's chest. Created for science, it becomes head-turning vehicular art when it ventures onto public roads: Drivers stop and stare, prompting what one project engineer terms a "mogjam."

A brutal midday sun bears down on Bran Ferren as he sips his third Diet Pepsi of the day, leans back, and squints at the Trona pinnacles, which shimmer in the Mojave Desert heat. He's already pinking up beneath a coat of SPF 50 sunscreen. He has had a small, bad, fast-food breakfast after a night with only three hours of sleep. A vicious wind blows grit in his face.      So how does he feel?     "Euphoric. This is absolute perfection."     Ferren, the hyperactive, charismatic polymath who once headed Disney's famed team of Imagineering researchers, is happy because he has just climbed into an amazing vehicle, one that took him five years and millions (he won't say how many) of his own dollars to create. Today, in this unforgiving place, he is taking it out for its first off-road shakedown. Once he massages out some of the kinks, he says, this go-anywhere ultra-SUV could revolutionize in-the-field scientific research. "Most everything hasn't been explored, and our planet is no exception," he says, settling into the navigator's chair (like everything else about the vehicle, it is pure sybaritism, featuring full-grain leather, independent air suspension, and seven-way adjustable support). "Archaeology, paleontology, geology—none of the 'ologies' have been able to examine huge portions of the earth in a meaningful way. This is the next generation of exploration."     Packed with every communications and navigation gadget known to man, the brawny vehicle—with its equally advanced, powered-wheel trailer in tow—can climb a 45-degree slope, ford 6-foot-deep rivers, and scramble over 3-foot-high boulders. For narrow backcountry trails or Yokohama alleys, there is a custom motorcycle strapped to the trailer. Soon to be added are a remote-controlled surveillance airplane, a small jet boat, and an unmanned submersible. Ferren's idea is that these various vehicles will form a self-contained research convoy that can go anywhere and investigate anything, all the while remaining in fat-bandwidth contact with each other and the world at large. 

The electronic components in the trailer's storage racks can be easily swapped out to accommodate different missions. The unfolded trailer is surprisingly roomy. Ferren says: "People tell me all the time it's nicer than their apartment. It was a wonderful design challenge: How do you squeeze what feels like a luxurious space into a tiny volume?"

"Nobody had ever studied these samples. Darwin collected them, and they just sat around," he says, now surrounded by blinking indicators and flashing screens on the dashboard. "It made me think: What if you could do the first-pass analysis in the field? Instead of hauling back lots of stuff that turns out to be worthless, what if you could bring a scanning electron microscope or an X-ray fluorescence analyzer with you?"      Couple those devices with satellite connectivity, Ferren says, and you "extend the community of experts into the point of contact." In other words, with the MaxiMog, anyone in the world can come along on any expedition without leaving home, via ultrahigh-resolution images or even satellite-linked virtual-reality goggles.      Indeed, the methods of communication are almost endless: While researcher A studies a freshly dug Australopithecus tooth on a Tanzanian steppe, researcher B can eyeball an exact copy made by a rapid prototyping machine at, say, Stanford University, which received signals from a 3-D scanner on the MaxiMog. A and B could then chat about the tooth via full-motion teleconferencing. So for the first time, collecting and analysis can happen simultaneously. "Based on the analysis of what you find, you get an informed opinion about where to look next," says Ferren. "This is new. The MaxiMog makes you smarter and allows you to do things you couldn't do before." 

 And that research can happen anywhere. Ferren designed the entire MaxiMog system and all its equipment to squeeze into a pair of standard shipping containers or the hold of a 747 jet, which means it could all be up and running at virtually any spot on Earth within 24 hours. With Ferren buckled up, David Alpert, an Applied Minds employee whom Ferren identifies as "director of all things MaxiMog," shifts the transmission into drive and taps the throttle of the small-block Chevy 360-horsepower LS-1 engine. Standing all around the vehicle on the Searles Dry Lake basin, a half-dozen Applied Minds engineers watch nervously. Most got as little sleep last night as Ferren. Some spent all night working out the kinks for this maiden off-road voyage.     Off we go, at 2.9 miles per hour.      The desert-tortoise speed reflects the fact that the trailer is still something of an objet d'art. Ferren's engineers popped in a temporary set of standard Unimog axles when the rig was put on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2001, and the heavy-duty custom axles haven't arrived yet, so Ferren isn't about to stress things. Both vehicles got here today via flatbed truck.      But it's all impressive nonetheless. The MaxiMog can communicate through virtually every wireless medium conceivable: short-range VHF and UHF, long-range HF/automatic-link establishment, or even videoconference via a microwave satellite link. "I can basically talk with anyone on any channel anywhere," says Ferren. Twelve video cameras peek out in every direction. There's a storm scope for lightning detection, a central tire-inflation controller (if MaxiMog needs to squeeze under a bridge, the 10-foot-6-inch-tall vehicle can hunker down to nine feet via microprocessor-controlled tire deflation), rollover-prevention sensors, even a driver-accessible refrigerator and a steam table for civilized noshing on the go. A trio of pneumatic masts can hoist laser range finders, radio receivers, cameras, floodlights, and even an adventurous human being in a special chair up to 40 feet above the terrain ("Good for a firsthand look at robbers that might be just over the next sand dune in the Sahara," Ferren jokes).     By far the most impressive aspect is the base vehicle's extraordinary GPS system, which makes state-of-the-art automotive GPS look like a frayed Esso road map. Crystal-bright, it toggles instantly from road map to aerial-photo database via software written by Applied Minds programmers. Virtually any map or photographic source imaginable—including real-time video from an unmanned drone overhead—can instantly register and overlay on the display. So anywhere from Barrow, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego in South America, "you will always be perfectly oriented," says Ferren.     I can imagine the Army wanting one of these GPS systems in every armored troop carrier or tank. Ferren, an in-demand government consultant with top security clearances, responds to this observation with a small, cryptic smile.

At home in a forbidding landscape, the MaxiMog waits with pneumatic antennas deployed, as Ferren takes a stroll. "People think the only places left for exploration are outer space or underwater. That's just not true," he says. "Even in this country, the Lake Powell area [on the Arizona-Utah border] wasn't mapped to a large extent until the 1950s."

  After two hours of roaming the dry lake bed, lunchtime looms, a perfect opportunity to move to the trailer. In travel mode, it is folded up like an origami flower. Once we stop, whirring motors thrust the roof up, and then out pop the kitchen and bathroom walls as if they were pocketknife blades. Inside, with clean lines and racks of communications gear, the usable space has doubled. It looks like a Stockholm apartment crossed with a police surveillance van. A vehicle in its own right, the trailer's 25-kilowatt diesel generator can serve as an emergency drive engine, allowing a joystick-operating user to get home at roughly 2 miles per hour.      We're eating deli sandwiches, but had we brought raw ingredients, this kitchen could feed a mob of gourmets. Complete with a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a built-in Miele cappuccino maker, it's a miniaturized version of the 880-square-foot, restaurant-quality kitchen Ferren shares with his companion, Robyn Low, at his East Hampton, New York, home.      Still, I wonder: Are all of the luxury touches and gadgets necessary?     "People say to me, 'It's a great toy,'" says Ferren, munching. "I don't find that insulting. I like toys. A great toy can also be a great tool." But does it really need the built-in coffee-bean grinder, or the cup holders that keep the driver's drinks electrically heated or chilled?     "When you are not miserable," Ferren says, "you do better work." This point will take on greater significance later in the day. Ferren disputes the notion that chronically cash-strapped university natural-science departments should balk at the price tag, which he will identify only as "x millions." Several departments could share a MaxiMog, he says, adding, "it would cost considerably less than a new wing on any building." 

"Actually, I've never really been a car guy," says Ferren. "People went above and beyond to be helpful with the project. It took an intensive five years to build, but it was more than worth it."

 Nonetheless, it's an awfully complex vehicle. Astronaut Story Musgrave, the six-shuttle-mission veteran who helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope, is an Applied Minds engineer and a Ferren pal. Long after lunch, in the starry blackness of late evening, he rubs a hand over his shaved pate and muses about the various systems on MaxiMog that went snafu today. The satellite link was spotty, one of the seven computers wouldn't boot, and worst of all, at about 9 p.m., the base vehicle's hi-low transmission-transfer case broke with a loud, ominous whack.Fortunately, Ferren had already arranged to have the vehicle and trailer winched back onto the flatbed for the return trip to Glendale.    "It reminds me of a space station," Musgrave says. But which one? Musgrave contends that one of the greatest space vessels of all time was Skylab circa 1973. "It was simple enough that you could spend 12 hours a day on it doing science," he says. Conversely, astronauts and cosmonauts on Russia's space station Mir in the mid-1990s "spent 16 hours a day just keeping the thing going." on to say, but for its first shakedown trip, it actually didn't do badly. Had this been a real, solo trek into the outback, we would have been fine. The generators are backed up by big batteries, which are backed up by small batteries, so the communications gear could have called for help, or Ferren and a friend could have motorcycled off to civilization, or the Mog's large stash of tools and spare parts might have permitted fixing the transfer case then and there. What might look like excess gadgetry, Ferren says, is better regarded as "a large complement of redundancies and workarounds."  On the long drive back to Los Angeles in Ferren's all-wheel-drive Cadillac SUV—with Musgrave driving and an exhausted Ferren snoozing in the back seat—I try to make sense of the day. I find that I am coming around to Ferren's comfort-yields-better-science viewpoint. Maybe it's time to consider a truly radical idea—that scientists shouldn't have to suffer for the sake of research.     I think back to a brilliant, middle-aged oceanographer I interviewed last year who told me with regret that he had abandoned research voyages because life on the spartan ships was just too miserable. Yet it seemed clear to me that this was precisely the time in his life when his accumulated knowledge would have made him most valuable at sea.     After years as a full-time science reporter, I've noticed that this problem is widespread. Scientists are human, with the standard set of tolerances. After too much frostbite, malaria, heatstroke, or dehydrated mush, the thrill of doing field research begins to pale. Unlike my unusually forthcoming oceanographer, I'll bet that many older scientists don't complain aloud but just quietly stop (or at least sharply curtail) their research expeditions.      If MaxiMog-level sophistication and coddling could keep middle-aged scientists in the field and allow elderly scientists to virtually come along, perhaps the MaxiMog system—including the Sub-Zero refrigerator and the cappuccino machine—really is more tool than toy, and a relatively cheap tool at that.  MaxiMog: It's All in the Details A comprehensive list of the MaxiMog Expedition System's specifications and features would more than fill this magazine, so only highlights are listed. For the rest, see BASE VEHICLE ------------

  • Dimensions: 20 feet 5 inches long, 6 feet 7 inches wide, 10 feet 6 inches high

  • Miles per gallon on the highway: 9.5

  • Fuel capacity: 123 gallons

  • Weight: 13,240 pounds

  • Drivetrain: 5.7-liter V-8; meets California emissions standards. Snorkel air

  • induction for deepwater fording, custom four-speed automatic transmission with fast-lockup torque converter, towing mode, dual oil coolers

  • Electrics: 30-kW hydraulic generator, 320-amp alternator, two 3-kW inverters, three 255-amp AGM deep- cycle batteries, 135-amp alternator

  • Suspension: variable-ride-height air, auto- leveling, central tire inflation, air brakes

  • Surveillance: five clearance-observation video cameras, including submersible undercarriage camera, lightning-storm scope, radar collision-avoidance system, various GPS systems, 5 km-area radar, direction finding linked to UHF/VHF/LF frequencies

  • Computers: four general-purpose in base vehicle, three in trailer, with dedicated spread-spectrum, wireless high-speed (1.5 Mbs) connectivity

  • Communications: numerous transmitters and receivers, including UHF, VHF, LF, MF, HF, CB, AM/FM, SSB, Inmarsat B and C, MSAT, Globalstar, Iridium, Wefax L-band satellite weather, amateur-radio bands. Two analog-digital cell phones, one GSM cell phone, intercom with four headsets, four two-way radios

  • Antennas: 20, including a 40-foot pneumatic mast with 350-pound payload capacity and a 20-foot pneumatic mast with 75-pound payload, UHF, VHF, LF, MF, HF, AM/FM, GPS, Inmarsat, cellular, wide band

  • Seats: three leather upholstered air- suspension seats with seven-way adjustments, lumbar air bags, heat, on-off road modes

  • Comfort features: refrigerator, food warmer, coffeemaker, heated and cooled drink holders, 12-disc CD changer, climate control system with positive air pressure to minimize dust infiltration

TRAILER ------------

  • Dimensions: 22 feet 1 inch long, 7 feet 1 inch wide, 9 feet 10 inches high

  • Weight: 14,000 pounds

  • Drive system: load-synchronized hydraulics powered either by onboard 25-kW diesel generator or external hydraulic-fluid power connection from base vehicle, or both. Steered by joystick

  • Suspension: Computer-controlled air

  • Surveillance: exterior infrared

  • Electronics modules: videotape editing system and uplink transmitter, still- imaging with scanner, printer, dual CD burners, Jaz and Zip drives, pilot consoles for unmanned aircraft and unmanned submersible, HF transceiver, computer- controlled RF-spectrum-analysis receiver, AM/FM/CD stereo, 50-inch plasma-panel video/graphics display

  • Comfort features: heat, air-conditioning, hot-water heater, bathroom sink, skylight, shower, mirror, incinerating toilet, keyless entry, broiler, toaster and convection oven, dual-induction cooking units, galley sink, espresso machine with built-in bean grinder, refrigerator-freezer, food processor

MOTORCYCLE ------------

  • Highly modified BMW R1150GS with ceramic clutch, heavy-duty shock absorbers, skid plates, side guards, cylinder protectors, heavy-duty alternator, UHF/VHF/HF multimode transceiver connected to GPS, microwave video transmitter, cell phone, driver-passenger intercom, satellite telephone, ruggedized computer for GPS moving map, e-mail messaging, and field notes

For more information on Bran Ferren's MaxiMog Expedition System, including a full list of specs, some interesting detail shots, and the tantalizing but yet unfulfilled promise of a "MogCam," visit

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