De­tail­ing the tech­nol­ogy and de­sign that makes Ki­raVan such a unique ve­hi­cle...

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Sci­ence -


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

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