This article originally appeared in Issue 6Â of our...
As children, many of us daydreamed of towering monster trucks, enormous castles, high-tech space stations, and other grandiose things. After all, what little kid doesn't like the idea of being fully independent and in control of his or her own domain—like a treehouse with a “keep out” sign, but on a much larger scale. Years later, you grow up and realize that you can't really commute to work in a monster truck, a castle would violate zoning laws, and a space station is a little out of your price range. This seems to be a disappointing fact of life. However, we found one father who refused to let the big dreams of his five-year-old daughter Kira slip away.
Bran Ferren is the former President of R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering and co-founder of Applied Minds, LLC, a company that does design and technical consulting work for industry giants such as General Motors, Intel, and Lockheed Martin. So, Ferren decided to put 100% of his resources, connections, and imagination to work creating the ultimate getaway for his young daughter Kira. It may not be a monster truck, a castle, or a space station, but it's actually the best of all these concepts rolled into one groundbreaking vehicle: the KiraVan Expedition System. This 51,000lb 6-wheel-drive behemoth is one of the most incredible survival vehicles we've ever seen, and it's one hell of a father-daughter project.
We first spotted the KiraVan at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, and immediately wanted to learn more about it. The KiraVan is what Ferren calls a “natural progression” from his last project, the MaxiMog, which began in the mid-1990s and was completed in 2001. The MaxiMog is a modular expedition vehicle and trailer, built by UNICAT in Germany to Bran's unique specifications. The MaxiMog is enormous in its own right, and is based on a 4×4 turbo-diesel Mercedes-Benz Unimog truck. Most people would be more than satisfied by a vehicle of this caliber, but after 15 years, Ferren decided it was time to take it to the next level and build something even more advanced.
Thus, the KiraVan was born. Ferren's web site states, “As compared to the MaxiMog, the [KiraVan's] principal design goals were to increase the available space and capabilities, extend flexibility and modularity, minimize crew workload while increasing their situational awareness, and minimize negative environmental impact.” Essentially, it was back to the drawing board to improve upon every aspect.
On top of all this, Ferren was building this vehicle for his daughter, so he wanted to “give Kira places to work, play, interact (often remotely) with her friends, and do her own personal research and discovery.” It was also a proof of concept to show the sort of systems Ferren's company, Applied Minds, is capable of designing and building.
Again, a Mercedes-Benz Unimog platform was chosen, this time a U500NA tractor chassis with a stretched and reinforced frame and highly reliable turbo-diesel engine. Everything else would be built from the ground up, with a wide array of high-tech systems used for “communications; telepresence; navigation; mapping; still, film, and video production; remote exploration; physical and chemical analysis; geology; archaeological survey work and digs; scientific field research, and thorough trip documentation.” Basically, not just what is needed to survive, but also what is needed to thrive and understand the surrounding environment.
The KiraVan is truly enormous, with a total length of 52 feet (7 feet longer than an average tour bus) and a maximum gross vehicle weight of 51,700lbs. At the front of the vehicle, a custom-built four door cab is packed with lights, brush guards, and antennas. It carries 170 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to travel up to 2000 miles without refueling, and it rides on 46-inch-tall off-road tires with a central inflation system (similar to that found on US military Humvees). The truck's fuel tanks are even heated for use in temperatures as low as -30F, and are filtered to accept biofuel or used vegetable oil. The variety of antennas allow for communication from anywhere on earth, as well as aircraft-grade global positioning so the truck and crew will never end up lost.
There are several servo-controlled pneumatic masts atop the tractor and trailer, which extend to provide added antenna reception and broadcasting capabilities. One of the masts contains an array of electro-optical cameras, including high-def video, still photography, FLIR infrared, night vision, and even a laser rangefinder. There's even a SATCOM for Internet connectivity and video conferencing.
The KiraVan's trailer is fully articulating for off-road use, and features a hydrostatically driven axle (making the vehicle 6-wheel-drive) as well as hydropneumatic suspension. At the rear of the trailer, you'll find a retractable lift platform that carries a one-of-a-kind turbo-diesel motorcycle known as the KiraBike. The KiraBike is capable of 100mpg fuel economy, and can traverse rough terrain with ease—perfect for scouting and supply runs.
The KiraVan trailer's insulated composite walls keep the trailer's interior isolated from the outside world, and a heavy-duty HVAC system keeps passengers comfortable in ambient temperatures of -30F to +130F. There's plenty of redundancy for electrical power, too: dual 25kw diesel generators, modular high-current battery banks, solar chargers, and connections for external power input. When parked, the trailer also deploys and expands like a high-end motorhome, effectively doubling interior space for the crew.
With an exterior this extreme, you might assume the KiraVan's interior is nothing but computer systems and diamond-plate aluminum. Well, yes and no. Portions of the interior are certainly high-tech, and Ferren's team openly admits to borrowing aspects of aircraft cockpit designs. Inside the cab, there are an almost unfathomable number of switches, lights, buttons, toggles, gauges, and screens. This seems overwhelming to a layperson, but if you've ever looked at a commercial jet cockpit, you'll know a select few individuals can handle this level of complexity with adequate training. We do imagine it would take years to learn how it all works, but in the event of a major disaster, you'd probably have plenty of time on your hands.
The rear of the tractor's cab contains more buttons and monitors, primarily for the security cameras and optics. Ferren says he intended the vehicle to be operated by a crew of three, and with the number of high-tech systems on this truck, we imagine everyone would be kept busy.
The KiraVan's trailer is a stark contrast to its high-tech trailer cab. There's wood flooring, a full kitchen, a 4K HDTV with surround sound, a dining area, and an office with dual Apple computers. On the upper level (yes, there's an upper level) you'll find a main sleeping loft and a pop-up “penthouse” designed specifically for Kira. The trailer's bathroom includes a shower with a multi-faceted skylight, and a toilet that incinerates all waste into a non-toxic and sterile powder. Ferren says the trailer contains enough food, water, and provisions to support the crew of three comfortably for 3 weeks without re-supplying.
If we hadn't seen this vehicle with our own eyes, we probably wouldn't believe it exists—it seems like the sort of thing that would make for a great concept rendering, but would be too costly to actually build. Yet, here it is. It's very real, and probably eye-wateringly expensive. Nevertheless, Ferren says the KiraVan is far from complete, and still needs work to get all the systems online and 100% reliable. But, with the motivation of building the ultimate vehicle to show his daughter Kira the world in, he's not stopping any time soon. Within a few years, the project should be completed, and you might even spot it on the road as it traverses the world with the Ferren family in tow.
For more information on the KiraVan and Applied Minds, LLC, visit Kiravan.net.