A HIGH-TECH HOME FROM HOME .
Detailing the technology and design that makes KiraVan such a unique vehicle...
Receivers for global navigation satellite systems keep track of the KiraVan. But if satellite signals aren’t detected, fibre-optic gyroscopes and precise accelerometers record the truck’s position, direction and velocity to continue mapping its location.
The trailer shares power and other systems while attached to the tractor, but can also operate as an independent base station. It’s made from composite materials such as aramid and fibreglass, and its walls offer radio-frequency shielding and lightning protection. The main sleeping loft is on a balcony, below a pop-up ‘penthouse’ tent. The kitchen and bathroom areas are expandable, increasing the internal volume by 50 per cent.
The KiraBike is mounted on an elevator at the trailer’s rear. This motorcycle serves as a ‘dinghy’ for short trips such as grocery shopping, and features a turbo-diesel engine with 100mpg fuel economy. It can use VHF and UHF radio for communication and includes a rugged tablet for internet access.
There is an office space with two networked computers, Wi-Fi for portable devices and access to the KiraVan’s computer systems. A 4K monitor can act as a graphics terminal to view maps or edit video, while a media library and satellite TV offer entertainment.
Each Kevlar-reinforced Michelin tyre is 116cm (46in) wide and weighs 135kg. Strong yet light alloy rims allow the wheels to run flat, while a self-inflation system can refill tyres in under five minutes. Tyre chains can be deployed for traction on slippery surfaces like ice, even while the vehicle is in motion.
Telescopic masts with pneumatic servos control the height of external sensors, which include long-range optics such as infrared and night-vision cameras. The tallest mast can raise those electro-optical systems to 17m above ground level.
A six-cylinder, 260bhp turbo-diesel engine powers the tractor, while 650-litre tanks supply it with enough fuel for a 3,200km driving range. In the trailer, a quiet 25kW diesel generator transfers mechanical energy to five alternators to create electric current, helped by a solar battery charging system.
Satellite communication provides wireless broadband at up to 10Mbps download and 5Mbps upload speeds, working in most areas globally. When satcom services aren’t available, the KiraVan uses an antenna for line-of-sight propagation via VHF or UHF radio signals.
The tractor is a Mercedes-Benz ‘UniMog’ truck with a stretched and strengthened chassis. Four-wheel drive provides off-road power and a top speed of 112km/h (70mph) while on the road. A hydrostatic system can transfer power to the rear axle for six-wheel drive up to 40km/h (25mph).
Glass cockpits developed for aircraft can now be found in land vehicles such as the Tesla Model S. The KiraVan’s cockpit system is far more sophisticated than a passenger dashboard, with control and instrument panels across no fewer than 11 displays, including six touchscreens.
Whether it’s -35ºC or 55ºC outside, a heating, ventilation and air-con system keeps everything comfortable.
Instead of conventional metal springs or shock absorbers, the KiraVan uses a nitrogen-over-oil system controlled by the truck’s computers. As in many off-road vehicles, the suspension is attached to portal axles (the tube is above the centre of the wheel hub) for high ground clearance and added torque.
Atouchscreen cockpit, fibreoptic gyroscopes, night vision cameras... the KiraVan Expedition System has it all. This super-smart truck is also the ultimate all-terrain vehicle: a
4x4 that can handle sand or snow, climb hills, cross streams and explore the world’s most remote regions. Built for endurance over long distances, the truck can carry enough supplies to sustain a threeperson crew for three weeks. If satellite communication isn’t available, it can navigate via highfrequency radio signals. A 700-litre tank can be topped up with water passed through a silver-lined antimicrobial, ultraviolet filtration system, while salt water is first desalinated by reverse-osmosis.
The high-tech van is the brainchild of inventor Bran Ferren, who named it after his daughter, Kira. In 2010, Ferren finished converting a Mercedes-Benz UniMog truck into a ‘MaxiMog’ with extras like cameras and videoconferencing. His daughter was born while he was planning the MaxiMog’s successor, which Ferren says inspired him to design a more child-friendly vehicle. “Upon Kira’s arrival,” he says, “the notion was, well, something that’s better suited to a family would be appropriate.”
Everything is packed into a modified tractor and trailer that’s
16m long and weighs up to 23.5 tonnes (limited to 19 tonnes offroad). It has areas for Kira to work and play, including a ‘penthouse’ in the trailer. Ferren’s daughter is closely involved in the van’s design and “constantly has input”, but the KiraVan isn’t just for family outings. It can be used for all sorts of expeditions for a variety of purposes, from geology and archaeology to filmmaking. Sensors mounted on telescopic masts can search for dig sites, for example, or capture images for a highresolution gigabit panorama.
“It’s designed to support a very flexible range of activities,” says Ferren, who believes in testing tech himself. “If you’re going to actually design, engineer and build things, you need to have your own firsthand experience with them.”
Ferren certainly has the experience. After producing special effects for Hollywood, which earned him an Oscar nomination, he became head of Walt Disney Imagineering, the R&D department that builds theme park rides. He is now co-founder and chief creative officer of Applied Minds, an R&D firm based in Burbank, California.
Ferren’s vision for KiraVan is implemented by a team of 30-40 employees, which can rise to 100 when specific skills (such as welding) are needed to bring hardware together. Anticipating that certain things, such as computer software, will no longer be state-of-the-art by the time Kira is old enough to drive, Ferren has made the van modular so it’s easy to upgrade. If a component is likely to go obsolete sooner rather than later, it’s designed in such a way that it’s straightforward to swap out.
Applied Minds is also using the KiraVan as a platform for research projects. Testing technologies might mean adapting sports car parts or creating something new. “The vast majority of the time, standard technology won’t do,” Ferren explains. “There are dozens and dozens of unique things on the vehicle, and each of them presented a creative, technical and
TOP: The KiraVan can happily traverse just about any terrain our planet can throw at it
ABOVE: The operator’s console houses communications equipment, with a joystick and display for operating RC vehicles
LEFT: The galley has all the appliances you need to cook in the wild, and was designed with input from a chef – Kira’s mother