Mean Machines

mean machines: ships (10/10)

This entertaining series concludes its mission to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet. The last edition of the series looks at the biggest, baddest and best seabeasts in the world, from gargantuan aircraft carriers to ships on legs, and from stealthy minehunters to nifty tugboats.

One of the most impressive mean machines on display tonight is the powerboat. Designed to compete in the Formula One Powerboat Grand Prix, one of the most dangerous extreme sports on Earth, the powerboat (or ‘pocket rocket’) can skim on the water at terrifying acceleration speeds of 0-100km in 3.5 seconds and is capable of turning hairpin bends at 90km/h. It is constructed out of Kevlar plastic –the same material bulletproof vests are made of. Guido Cappellini, one of the sport’s leading exponents, knows only too well the hazardous and often fatal nature of his profession: “In my career I have lost many friends,” he says.

Its danger lies in the precision steering the drivers must perform. The boat effectively hovers on the water due to an air cushion created between two hulls on the boat. If the driver makes a wrong move, the boat will spin over and ‘barrel roll’ along the surface of the water at a sickening speed. Guido and his team of engineers are constantly trying to improve his boat to make it faster and safer. It is, without doubt, a true mean machine.

Another awesome feat of engineering is the motor vessel Revolution, a ship than can turn itself into an immobile platform in order to construct wind farms out at sea. It looks like a normal working boat, but has six legs which are sunk into the ground. “It can jack at a metre a minute,” explains Chief Officer Ken Robey. The 17,000 tonne ship is soon functioning like an oil rig, and gets to work on erecting huge wind turbines. It has to do an astronomically difficult job, not helped by coastal weather conditions and huge waves. Mean machine? Few would argue not.

Also featured on the show this week is the Rotortug, a dextrous little boat which is nimble enough to carry massive oil tankers. And at the other end of the scale: the mighty USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.

Friday 27 April

mean machines: loggers (9/10) 19.30–20.00

This entertaining series continues with its mission – to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet, taking viewers inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around. The exciting world of logging is investigated in this penultimate edition, which features tree-chopping monsters from the cutting-edge of technology.

First up is the 13 tonne Timberjack, a machine so powerful, agile and intelligent that it can do the work of a team of lumberjacks with just one operator. Isolating a single tree, this mechanical marvel works by grabbing hold of the trunk with a telescopic grapple. It then saws it off, debranches it and cuts it down to size. Equipped with a state-of-the-art computer, the Timberjack is able to measure the timber it has procured and can tell the operator when it has cut down enough for a particular job.

It takes a year to train a Timberjack operator, and what was once a job for brawn has become a task for the brainy. Instructor Chris Thompson explains why there’s no room for mistakes when in control of the cutting head: “If you look around it, it’s full of spikes, jaws, sharp edges and jaggy things.” At 160 thousand pounds, the Timberjack costs a lot more than the average hedge-trimmer but, shifting up to 800 trees a day, it is a true mean machine.

Fifty years ago, a valley in Central British Columbia was flooded to make a hydro dam. Thirty metres below its calm surface lies a sunken forest of prime hardwood stretching for 16 kilometres and worth millions. Until now, this timber has been completely inaccessible, with scuba divers occasionally risking life and limb to retrieve a few trunks with chainsaws. But a now a remarkable new remote controlled submarine called the Sawfish has solved the problem.

The Sawfish is fitted with standard logging equipment, a camera and five powerful thrusters for extra manoeuvrability. Controlled by a skilled pilot, it grips and saws through a selected trunk, before attaching it to an air bag. When this inflates, the tree is dramatically propelled to the surface where it is collected by a barge. CEO of Triton Logging Chris Godsall explains how the company borrowed technology from the oil and gas industries: “You can go into 10,000 feet of water,” he says. For its amazing agility and clever airbag action, the Sawfish is a truly impressive aqua mean machine.

However, sometimes in the logging business innovative technology is not required – it just takes a good old fashioned saw. At Canada’s Annual Lumberjack Competition, some of the most skilful loggers in the world compete with customised chainsaws – replete with double-barrelled carburettors and motocross bike exhausts – and traditional long saws.

Canadian champion and veteran logger Matt Mooney competes with his daughter Sarah every year. The biggest tests at the competition involve slicing through thick trunks with a long saw – a feat he and Sarah can accomplish in just under 11 seconds. Not just anyone could be a lumberjack, says Matt. “You got to have the technique,” he warns. “You couldn’t just pick up a power saw and go out in the woods and start felling trees. You’d be dead in no time flat.” These champion lumberjacks demonstrate that even a simple long saw can qualify as a mean machine.

mean machines: trains (8/10)

This entertaining series continues with its mission to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet, taking viewers inside the world’s biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines along the way. This programme looks at the world’s most innovative trains, from vintage steamers to hitech, sci-fi wonders.

First stop is Bremen in Germany, where the miracle of Maglev technology has revolutionised train travel. ‘Magnetic levitation’ was developed in Germany in the 1970s, and scientists have been refining this futuristic phenomenon ever since. So how does it work? A continuous coil of electronically charged magnets is built into a track. The force from these magnets opposes magnets inside the train itself, whilst applying electromagnetic energy to push the train from the back, and pull from the front. Amazingly, this process allows the train to travel at speeds of up to 500km an hour – as fast as a plane. “We’re actually flying on the ground,” explains Bob Budell, head of the Maglev project in Germany. “In many ways, we’re more like an airplane than we are a train.”

As well as supreme speed, the hovering train also offers a very smooth ride, without the usual grinding wheels or bumpy tracks. And with no engines, Maglev has an impressively low impact on the local environment. So why is the system not in place everywhere? Maglev’s unique tracks have to be constructed from scratch, and cost a breath-taking £8 million per mile. However, plans are afoot to develop these amazing trains across the globe, drastically reducing journey times and easing pressure on congested roads and air routes worldwide. The 170 miles between LA and Las Vegas, for example, could one day be crossed in just 100 minutes!

Not so fast, but just as impressive, is the Unimog 400. At first glance, this deceptive vehicle looks like a run-of-the mill truck, zipping about the factory floor. Set it on a track, however, and the Unimog’s inbuilt hydraulics get to work, transforming the vehicle into a powerful train capable of shunting loads of up to 1,000 tonnes. Josef Schumacher is a Unimog driver and fanatic. “If the Unimog were an animal,” he says, “it would be a bull.”

Having explored some cutting-edge train technology, the programme next moves to the transport system’s very origin. The most rugged route in North America is still traversed by a magnificent steam train, 124 years after the line was first built by General William Palmer during the gold rush. The Durango and Silverton route, blasted from the rocks of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, has seen £160 million-worth of precious metals pass along its tracks since its inception. Famously narrow, the trains were constructed with piety in mind – General Palmer did not want any unholy unions on his watch, and made sure there was no room for double beds.

Today, the train carries mainly tourists. Around 200,000 passengers a year cross the toughest terrain in the States, incinerating 6 tonnes of coal and 45,000 litres of water on every 160km trip. Rarely bettered for efficiency or sheer brute force, the steam engine is the true grandfather of mean machine trains.

mean machines: cranes
(7/10) 19.30–20.00

This entertaining series continues to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet, taking viewers inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around. This evening’s episode looks at the heavy lifters of the mechanical world: cranes.

The first candidate for the Mean Machines stamp of approval is not one crane but two – a pair of roller cranes. A stadium in Liège, Belgium, needs its roof attaching. This requires lifting a load of 360 tonnes and carrying it 100 metres to slot into place, without any buckling, snagging or dropping. The delicate operation demands low winds and much care.

With the all clear from the supervisors, the lift goes ahead, with each crane relying upon massive counterweights to stop them falling over. When an electronics malfunction strikes, the engineers are able to flaunt some technical prowess. The cranes’ onboard computers are linked via wireless modem to the company’s engineers in Brussels, 100 kilometres away. In no time at all, they send back their diagnosis and the problem is fixed. The stadium’s roof is successfully attached.

But cranes are not all about size and strength. Tonight’s show also checks out one of the smallest lifters in the business: the UNIC mini crane. These nifty little cranes can be folded down to just 60cm wide. They come with spider-like legs, an arm that can extend to five and a half metres, and a lifting capacity of nearly three tonnes. Not to mention one other essential design facet – remote control. All these elements make the cranes ideal for working in difficult areas where human beings might not like to go.

The mini crane in tonight’s show is at work in the decommissioned Winfrith nuclear power station in Dorset, shifting a load of radioactive debris that would be far too dangerous for any human to approach. “The crane was first developed in Japan,” explains engineer Marc MacDonald. “Because of the congested areas, they needed cranes that were smaller and more compact.” Not only is this crane tough, it comes with artificial intelligence. “You can’t cheat the crane,” Marc says. “You can’t tell it to do something it can’t do.” Such is the versatility of this little beast, it has been called into action to shift priceless works of art in the Tate Gallery.

So much for jobs on dry land – what about situations where there is nothing to stand on but clear blue water? Tonight’s edition also pays a visit to Montrose harbour in eastern Scotland, where a Mammoth floating crane is being used to build a bridge. It’s an exacting operation that requires precise movements to anchor the crane into place. They must also work against the clock and complete the job before the tide leaves the crane high and dry.

Gordon Skea, captain of the Mammoth, is happy to talk through the procedure: “As the crane rotates you have to be alert to it and make sure that you keep the ship as stable as you possibly can,” he says. As the ship moves around, a counterweight shifts from one side to the other to balance it. “It’s very much like driving a bus,” Gordon jokes. Unlike a bus, however, this behemoth can lift an incredible 250 tonnes. As well as building bridges, the crane can be called upon to salvage trawlers and rescue stranded whales. All of which makes the Mammoth a certifiable mean machine.

Mean Machines: Submarines (6/10) Friday 6 April: 19.30–20.00

This entertaining series continues to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet, taking viewers inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around. In this evening’s episode, the focus is on submarines.

First up is The Royal Navy’s HMS Turbulent. The latest in billion-pound technology, this 85-metrelong submarine has a mission to find and destroy enemy targets. Powered by a nuclear reactor, she can stay submerged for up to 90 days. With her cruise missiles, Turbulent can hit land-based targets, but what she is really good at is destroying other subs. “Finding them is the hard bit,” says submariner Andy. One major way of doing this is through sonar, which lets the crew listen out for other vessels. An operator who knows his job can tell how many propellers the other sub has just by listening. By keeping her own noise down, Turbulent remains undercover. But this stealth only accentuates her deadly capabilities. “A submarine is very much an attack-minded vessel,” confirms Andy. “It’s a very, very adept killing machine.”

The Flying Dolphin is an altogether different proposition. It is not designed to stalk prey, pass undetected or fire deadly missiles. In fact, this fully submersible watercraft is built purely for fun. Rob Innes and Dan Piazza show us the Dolphin they built in their garage, whose cockpit comprises parts from fighter planes and Formula One cars. The Dolphin can perform a range of impressive tricks, including snorkel dives, barrel rolls and a manoeuvre that involves jumping clear out of the water. “We’re learning as we go, so there might be a host of other tricks out there,” says Rob. Unlike a regular sub, which dives by taking on water to make it sink, this craft uses its forward thrust to drive it under.

Next in the line-up is the VIIC U-boat. Although it is now a museum piece, it was once one of the most frightening machines on the planet. Many believe it almost won the Second World War for the Germans. Certainly its conquests were impressive: it sank 4,600 merchant ships and 175 Allied warships, and more than 30,000 sailors were killed as a result of U-boat attacks. Tonight we hear about the harsh conditions its crew endured to achieve these results.

Of course, no submarine is infallible. So what happens if its engines fail, or if it is crippled by enemy missiles? In this type of situation the surviving crew must lie still to save oxygen. As this precious oxygen rapidly turns into poisonous carbon dioxide, the crew will start to experience extreme physical and mental stress before slowly losing consciousness. What is needed to save the day is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Tonight’s programme tells the remarkable story of how, in August 2005, an ROV helped a team of rescuers save a Russian sub that was stranded 200 metres underwater after becoming trapped in fishing nets.

But what if the ROV doesn’t work? This is likely to be a job for the one and only LR5. Unlike the ROV, this 21-tonne machine is manned, and runs on batteries that can keep it underwater for up to ten hours. Pilot Nick Gilbert explains how it achieves the feat of docking with the submarine in distress and getting the crew off and back to safety. It is these life-saving powers that make the LR5 the most formidable submarine in the business.

mean machines: tunnellers (5/10) 19.30–20.00

Many of the most essential construction projects rely on tunnelling machines. As the latest edition of Mean Machines graphically illustrates, these subterranean rock-munchers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

First up is the world’s largest tunneller, the Wirth TBE-500. At 180 metres long and weighing 1,000 tonnes, this is a truly gargantuan Mean Machine. As it uses its six arms to cut a pair of motorway tunnels through a mountain near Zurich, the TBE removes a staggering 400 cubic metres of rock every hour. By the time it reaches the other side, 1,200,000 cubic metres of rock will have been ground into rubble by the TBE’s hardened-steel cutting heads. In some cases, it’s too difficult and expensive to bring these leviathans back to the surface – one of the machines used to dig the Channel Tunnel was steered into a tunnel of its own, which was then collapsed around it, sealing the machine in a grave of its own creation.

In Finland, a far smaller but no less exciting machine uses the power of liquid explosive to create a tunnel through hard rock. Called the Rocket Boomer, this bizarre spider of a machine uses four independently moveable arms to drill up to 140 six-metre-deep holes in the rock face. The holes, which are precisely mapped using a computer, are then filled with liquid explosive. The charges detonate at five-millisecond intervals in a spiral pattern, sending 1,000 tonnes of rock flying in all directions. When the dust clears and the rubble is removed, a neatly-cut section of tunnel is revealed, and the drilling begins again.

Sometimes the tunnellers require a more subtle solution to that provided by the Rocket Boomer, and that’s where the micro-tunnellers come in. One such machine is demonstrated working beneath a row of houses in England. Steered using a laser guidance system, the unmanned five-metre-long tunneller slowly creates a space beneath the foundations, while sections of pipe are forced through immediately behind, reinforcing its work.

In Switzerland, a slightly larger machine known as the Vertical Incline Shaft Tunnel Boring Machine specialises in working uphill. Using hydraulic brake pads to brace itself against the tunnel walls, this machine climbs slowly through the inside of the mountain to a reservoir. Its tunnel will help to provide the power for a hydro-electric power plant. It makes sense to tunnel upwards because this allows the rubble to flow easily down the tunnel, rather than having to be removed piecemeal by other machines. This spoil, referred to as ‘muck’, can then be used in other construction projects.

It is beneath the town of Lausanne, also in Switzerland, where the ultimate tunnelling Mean Machine is to be found. The Road Header is a caterpillar-tracked vehicle that varies in weight from 40 to 150 tonnes, and which sports an extendable arm at the front. The arm has a spiked metal fist at its tip, made from specially treated steel, which spins at high speed. This formidable appendage can carve out 30 square metres of rock without having to move the vehicle, allowing the Road Header to create a tunnel of any shape. The only problem created by this machine is dust – as the huge cutting head comes into contact with the rock wall ahead, the rock is turned into a fine spray which must be sucked away by powerful fans before it damages the eyes and lungs of those working in the tunnel. At £1.3 million, the Road Header may not be the cheapest vehicle on the market, but it is certainly one of the most impressive.

mean machines: trucks (4/10) 19.30–20.00

Mean Machines is a show with a mission: to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet. Taking viewers inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around, the series provides the low-down on what truly makes a mean machine. In this evening’s episode, the focus is on trucks.

The first machines on show are the craziest trucks in the business. Designed for massive jumps and death-defying stunts, monster trucks trash anything that gets in their way. On tonight’s programme, two of these mighty specimens go head to head –the 1500 horsepower Gravedigger, driven by Dennis, and the awe-inspiring Maximum Destruction, driven by six-time World Champion Tom. The winner will be whoever races fastest and jumps furthest –and the contest is too close to call right up until the last moment.

Next, we encounter a true life-saver, the Cobra 2. This rapid-response fire and rescue engine comes into play when an aircraft crashes during take-off or landing. Unlike a regular engine, the Cobra transports its own water –10,000 litres of it. The water is fired from a roof-mounted cannon in a stream that is strong enough to knock a man over. Because a kerosene fire burns at such a high temperature, however, water alone can’t cool it down. This is no problem for the Cobra, whose unique onboard computer adds foam to the mix.

Meaner still is the Caterpillar 797B dumper. Designed for open-pit mining, this is the largest truck in the world, and can carry 380 tonnes in a single load. Everything on this machine is on a massive scale, including the four-metre-diameter wheels, which come with a huge price tag. “They’re worth more than $50,000 each,” confirms Alberta mine worker Rance. Female 797 driver Joella admits that she was intimidated by the truck to start with, but is now an old hand. “It’s quite easy to drive once you get to know how big you are on the road,” she insists.

Tonight’s next machine is like a regular truck, but on steroids. With enough technology on board to turn it into a fully armoured safety deposit box on wheels, it’s the Buffalo military personnel carrier. It can run through minefields without picking up a scratch and withstands bomb blasts that would shred a lesser vehicle. The Buffalo’s v-shaped hull is manufactured from a single strip of armoured sheet metal, which is what guarantees its amazing protective power. Another of its tricks is a remotely operated, camera-guided hydraulic arm. It might look like the world’s biggest backscratcher, but it can turn over suspicious packages and detonate roadside mines at a safe distance.

Finally tonight, a look at the fastest truck ever invented –the Shockwave. It accelerates at an incredible rate to velocities of over 480km per hour. At the front it is just a regular truck, but three diesel aircraft engines mounted on the back provide Shockwave with an amazing 36,000 horsepower of acceleration. The appropriately named Shockley brothers –both dedicated Shockwave drivers and the sons of its creator –explain the appeal of this unique machine.

mean machines: amphibians (3/10) 19.30–20.00

Mean Machines is a show with a mission: to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet. Taking viewers inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around, the series provides the low-down on what truly makes a mean machine. In this evening’s episode, we hunt down the meanest machines on both land and water – the amphibians. From life-savers to war veterans, and from sports cars to ice dozers, we search for the ultimate all-terrain vehicles.

In Southern California, one man had a dream: to make a car that wasn’t just great on the road, but could also drive on the water. Meet the Watercar – the world’s fastest amphibious vehicle, capable of speeds up to 80 kph on water. The man behind the wheel of this incredible car is also its inventor, Dave March. Self-made millionaire Dave built the Watercar in his garage, and has spent many thousands of hours and dollars ensuring that he gets what he wants. “I want to be known as having the world’s fastest amphibious vehicle,” he says.

But amphibious vehicles are nothing new. In the 1960s, they were touted to be the transport of the future, though most prototypes turned out to be letdowns – inefficient on land, embarrassing on water. Dave even tried restoring one, but he soon realised that fulfilling his dream would mean starting the project from scratch.

So how do you turn a car into a Watercar? Dave has been experimenting with various models, but the principles are always the same. The first principle is to make it lightweight. With his first vehicle, Dave took the fibreglass frame from a 2002 Camero and placed it on top of a skeleton of light gauge, stainless steel and square tubing. The next step is to make sure the car can plane –skim across the surface of the water. For this, the front end of the vehicle must stay up, so Dave decided to position a ripping fast engine in the boot. But to get such a big engine inside, he had to make some special modifications, redesigning the car’s layout.

The final problem faced during such a conversion is what to do with the wheels. As Dave puts it, the wheels would act “like parachutes in the water,” so they need to be moved. His solution is like something from a James Bond movie –at the press of a button when the car hits the water, up come the wheels and the vehicle cruises along, as if nothing had happened. For being fast, for looking sexy, and for going everywhere, the Watercar is a true mean machine.

The next amphibian in tonight’s programme may not be as sleek as the Watercar, but it just might save your life. Canada’s busiest coastguard station gets more than 500 SOS rescue calls a year, but with some the most treacherous tidal waters in the world surrounding the city of Vancouver, the coastguard cannot rely on any ordinary boat. In this place, only one machine will get these medics where they are needed in time –the hovercraft.

This particular machine is the AP1-88/100 rescue hovercraft. Part boat, part plane, it weighs 71 tonnes and is nearly 30 metres long, yet has a top speed of 100 kph. The craft floats over a meter and a half above the ground, and can move over water, beaches and even stray logs without any problems. But the technology behind this monster is deceptively simple. Essentially, all you need to make a hovercraft is a fan to push air down, an airbag to trap that air and push the craft up, and propellers to push the craft forward. Driven forward by these propellers, the hovercraft rests on a huge air pocket, and flies over anything in its path.

With no friction between the hovercraft and the ground, and with no hull, keel or rudder, it is very easy to get the vehicle to skim over almost any surface. What is not so easy, however, is getting the thing to stop!

Friday Mar 2
mean machines: bulldozers (2/10) 19.30–20.00

Mean Machines is a show with a mission: to hunt down the most exciting mechanical monsters on the planet. Taking viewers right inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around, this new documentary series provides the lowdown on what truly makes a mean machine.

In this first episode, we track down some of the meanest earth-movers on the planet. Bulldozers so massive they can move mountains; so clever they can think for themselves and so mean they can take on volcano-like conditions and win.

The granddaddy of them all, the Caterpillar, is the machine against which all others are measured. The Cat-D9 has a 410-horsepower engine and 3.4-metre tracks, and can go up near-vertical slopes and shovel 50 tonnes of earth in one scoop. It’s the latest version of a model Cat has been designing and has been improving for nearly a century. At Cat’s HQ in Illinois, tester Brian Sims enjoys indulging his passion for big machines. “I started out in the gold mines in southern California,” he explains. “I love operating big machinery and moving dirt around”.

The next earth-mover profiled in tonight’s programme is the Snow Cat, a bulldozer modified to work at extreme altitudes on super-steep gradients and through metre-deep snow drifts. These bulldozers’ job is to pound ski runs smooth for some skiers, and make massive jumps for others, which means that they’re what makes the difference between a world-class ski resort and a big, cold mountain.

The Snow Cat might be king of the mountains, but the next bulldozer is so mean that it can work in places that would melt the Cat. The Caterpillar D10 has been adapted to deal with the extreme conditions found in this nickel mine in Ontario, Canada, from its specialised blade to its customised ripping claws, and is adapted to break and shift diamond-hard slag.

Elsewhere in tonight’s programme, meet the tiny bulldozers that may one day go to Mars; and the Komatsu D575 Super Dozer – the biggest bulldozer in the world – which can shovel out more than 180 million dollars’ worth of coal a year.

Coming soon…

This brand-new series provides an insight into some of the most formidable mechanical monsters known to man, giving the inside track on the biggest, strongest and fastest machines around.

This first programme looks at five of the best submarines, including The Royal Navy’s HMS Turbulent. The latest in billion-pound technology, her mission is to find and destroy enemy targets. She is powered by a nuclear reactor and can stay submerged for up to 90 days.

Also featured on the programme are the VIIC Uboat, which nearly won the Second World War for the Germans; the ROV (remotely operated vehicle), used to rescue trapped subs; the mighty 21-ton LR5; and the Flying Dolphin, claimed by many to be the most fun you can have underwater.

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1