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Mobile mapping solutions are not new technology. A good GPS receiver combined with a portable PC and software makes for a very handy companion to have along on those off-highway trips (heck, it evens works pretty darn good on the highway....but who needs it there, you have road signs to keep you from getting lost!).
For my off-highway mapping setup, I opted to use a Panasonic Toughbook notebook computer. The Toughbook series is designed for this kind of environment. Panasonic markets these notebooks as "the computers for the OUTSIDE world". Here are the specs on my CF-17, which is no longer a current production model. They are still available on E-bay and at some internet computer stores.
300 MHz Celeron Processor with 192 MB RAM.
4.3 GB hard drive mounted in a gel pack
8.4" anti-reflection 800x600 TFT touchscreen
PCMCIA slot, 9 pin serial port, USB Port
87-key keyboard, Win98, Lithium-Ion battery
built-in 56k modem, AC adapter, weighs 3.8 pounds
I grabbed the following information about the CF-17 from the GCN (Government Computer News) web site. They said;
The Panasonic CF-17 looks like a miniature version of the company’s CF-27, which the GCN Lab has driven a Plymouth Neon across with no ill effects [GCN, May 24, 1999, Page 31]. The sleek, matte black magnesium case is exactly the same as the CF-27’s. Its ability to take a lot of punishment is obvious.
For shock testing, we dropped the unit, both powered on and turned off, 20 times from a height of three feet. Each time, depending on whether it was powered during the drop, the CF-17 either turned right on during the next boot cycle or was ready for immediate use when we opened the case. The system did not so much as flinch from the shocks.
After we dried the system off, we saw no effects on either benchmark performance or general operation. Only the “Intel Inside” sticker suffered. It nearly steamed off the case. In the second moisture test, we turned the notebook on and dumped eight ounces of water over the keyboard. The CF-17 continued to work even when we pushed the keys and completely submerged them. And we’re glad to report that no one was electrocuted during the testing.
Before I go any further, this project is a little different than most of those I write-up. This is still a work in progress. To be more exact, this is my first installation of the Toughbook in the TJ and it won't be the last. I want to keep this a bolt in project if at all possible. Since the Jeep will probably outlast the PC, I would just as soon not have welded brackets to deal with at a later date. So the mounting method is still on going and will probably be changed down the road a time or two. I would like to try a low profile swivel base if I can find one for a realistic price. I've already had a couple of minor strokes after seeing the prices from some of those .com stores. OUCH! I don't want to make their car payment just so I can get a notebook mounting bracket!
I use two different software applications for off-roading. Garmin MapSource allows me to upload supplemental maps to my Garmin III+ receiver. Since I will not always want or need the Toughbook running all the time, enhancing the base maps in the Garmin receiver provides good mapping information for most trail rides. I use OziExplorer for all of my GPS track and waypoint management tasks. I have tried several Delorme products (3-D Topos, etc.) but I find myself going back to OziExplorer each time. With its support for the USGS 1:24000 topo maps (7.5' quadrangle maps), it is really a great piece of software and cheaper than any other mapping application I have tried.
I had an aluminum mounting platform made from 1/4" plate. A friend of
mine builds custom mounting solutions for electronics equipment normally used in
mountain top radio installations. The aluminum platform is also a work in
progress. I need to cut a couple of quarter inch slots in it to facilitate
the easy removal of the Toughbook from the mounting platform. The aluminum
platform is basically form fitting to the Toughbook. The bottom is tapped
with three 1/4"x20 holes. In the above picture, the aluminum platform is
bolted to a 1/4" thick piece of Plexi-glass. The Plexi-glass is attached
to the dash bar by two 1-3/4" u-bolts. I hope to have a couple of two
piece mounting brackets machined for the next mounting setup. They will
accomplish the same purpose as the u-bolts while being easier to install and
adjust. (remember, a work in progress!)
The Toughbook comes with a heavy duty carrying handle. I removed the
handle so that the mounting brackets could be used to secure one end of the
laptop to the aluminum platform. If I can get the mounting brackets
machined, I'll be able to get rid of the ugly u-bolts and go with some button
hex head fasteners.
While the Toughbook can run on battery power, operation would be
limited to about 90~120 minutes. The 110 VAC power inverter which has been
in the TJ for quite some time is used to power the Toughbook during normal
use. Since the inverter is wired to the aux fuse panel, it can be powered
up at any time. The Optima Yellow Top should keep things going for a
The red arrow is from the moving map display function in OziExplorer. It shows me pointing north on the street I happen to live on. The contrast on this TFT touch screen is pretty good. These pictures were taken a few days ago while I was parked in my drive way. A Toshiba notebook that saw regular trips with me in the TJ was almost impossible to view in daylight. Note the screws holding the LCD panel bezel in place. This is not a plastic notebook. The Toughbook has a magnesium alloy case with no vents (conduction cooling through the metal) and all the data ports have rubber plug covers. This notebook is made for the rigors of OHV use (so says Panasonic). Time will tell if it lives up to its reputation or not.
The front of the magnesium alloy case has depressions in it that are used by the Toughbook's docking station. The spring loaded thumb screws secure the front end of the Toughbook in the aluminum platform. I have the option of using either a PCMCIA Ethernet card (and cable) or a USB wireless module to update the Toughbook's software. Plans are to pick up a PCMCIA wireless card to keep things a little more compact.
My original plan was to mount the aluminum platform to the roll bar spreaders where they meet up with the TBT roll bar. I have software to invert the Toughbook's video display and the touch screen calibration program allows me to calibrate it for use "upside down". OziExplorer can easily be controlled via the plethora of on-screen menus and toolbars, so the keyboard being upside down would not be a hindrance. However, that also meant moving one or both of my radios and I was not sure where they would end up at.....so......I decided to try the dash bar as a mounting point. As I said, time will tell how this works out. For those that were wondering, the inverting software is called Pivot Pro and is from www.portrait.com
I'll try to keep this page updated as I work my way through
other mounting setups. With luck, I'll have it all ironed out in a few
months (given time and opportunity!).
Update: Feb. 23, 2004
It's been several months since the Toughbook was installed in the TJ. It is doing just fine. Every now and again I use the CO2 tank to blow the dust off of the keyboard and LCD screen. It has stood up to the trails and vibrations of the access roads. I've not had to use it a lot while off-road but have ran it for several hours at a time just to make sure it would survive as advertised. So far, so good!
I did change the orientation of the mount just a bit. In the pics above, the Plexi-glass rests on top of the dash bar and the u-bolts come up from the bottom. I switched that around so the Plexi-glass is beneath the dash bar and the u-bolts come down from the top. It looks better this way (no exposed u-bolt ends) and works just as well from a functional aspect.
Update: Jan. 17, 2005
Almost another year has passed since I last updated this article. Unfortunately, the mounting configuration remains as it was.....it happens....what which was going to be a temporary solution beccame permanent. I sill need to address those ugly u-bolts. As for the computer, it is alive and doing well. The battery died about 2 months ago (not too bad given how old this unit was (it came configured with Windows 98). It is my opinion that laptop batteries enjoy being used and this battery really didn't see that much use. Anyway, the AC power inverter continues to power it just fine even though the battery light flashes at me to indicate that there is a problem.
As for the hard drive and such, it is alive and well too. Every now and then, Win98 will lock up but that does not come as a surprise to anyone that has ever used Win98. I had the unit up and running all day long for a run just this past Christmas. Never burped during the entire day. I reconfigured the Toughbook's settings so that the display is turned off when the lid is closed but the PC continues to function. On the trail, I can easily close the lid to give me an unobstructed view of the trail and then pop it open when needed to determine which fork in the trail is the desired route.