DARPA 'crowd sources' combat vehicle design
By Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 2011 -- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is leveraging the "power of the crowd" to reduce the time it takes to design and build complex, expensive combat vehicles, an agency official said today.
Army Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, deputy program manager for the six-month Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-support Vehicle Design Challenge, told American Forces Press Service that the crowd includes servicemembers, engineers, members of the public and others who usually have no way to contribute to military design.
"Soldiers love to give feedback, to put it nicely, about the limitations of their vehicles," Wiedenman said.
"I spent months in Afghanistan hearing from Soldiers about their issues with their vehicles," he added. "So here's an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to how we can do things better."
The program will result in a fully functional concept vehicle that should be ready in June, he said, and offers a way to introduce the most innovative ideas for a better performing vehicle.
The agency is working to create a new, faster process for developing future military vehicles. This challenge, conducted with Local Motors, Inc., of Phoenix, is one step in that process.
Local Motors will begin accepting design submissions Feb. 10, and close the process March 3. The competition is open to the public, and designs can be entered using anything from a sketch on a piece of paper to a computer-aided design system. The winner will receive $7,500, second place $1,500 and third place $1,000.
The competition involves use of a lightweight, tubular steel chassis and a General Motors power train from a car called the Rally Fighter built by Local Motors, which developed the vehicle in 2008 using a crowd-sourced process.
Those who take the challenge will use the chassis and drive train and design a vehicle body "that does the things soldiers need it to do," Wiedenman explained.
To focus the contributors' efforts, the challenge offers two mission sets -- one is combat delivery and evacuation and the other is combat reconnaissance.
"The intent is not to produce two separate vehicles but to give people something to shoot for," Wiedenman said.
Combat resupply refers to the constant need in the battlefield to bring supplies forward and move people or equipment back, he explained. The challenge for this mission will be to conceptualize a vehicle body design that allows this to be done in the most flexible possible way.
A combat reconnaissance vehicle has to be light and fast. Sighting systems should be mountable on the vehicle. Inside, items such as camouflage and ammunition should be easily stowed but accessible, Wiedenman said.
"Because we realize that not everybody has the military background to understand these mission-set requirements," he added, "we provided Local Motors with four different fictitious scenarios" that illustrate how the vehicles might be used during each mission.
"In the late 90s during a resupply mission we found ourselves low on rations," one of the fictitious scenarios begins, and tells how weather stranded a group of coalition forces for three days without food or water.
"If we'd had access to a fast vehicle," the scenario concludes, "they could have provided the necessary supplies within 24 hours and our mission wouldn't have been delayed. Fortunately the delay didn't cost us any lives this time."
According to the competition description, "The goal of the [concept] vehicle will be to transport items and people around quickly and efficiently in a potentially hostile but mobile environment."
DARPA has successfully used crowd-sourcing for other projects, Wiedenman noted.
In 2009, the DARPA Network Challenge explored the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team building and the urgent mobilization needed to solve time-critical problems.
The Network Challenge winner was the first to submit the locations of 10 8-foot balloons moored at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States.
During the current challenge, the agency and Local Motors will provide feedback to the competitors, Wiedenman said.
"As submissions are received, folks at Local Motors and DARPA will be providing feedback. There will be quite a bit of back and forth," he said. "It's not just one shot and you're done."
After the submissions are assessed, those that meet the challenge requirements will be up for vote on March 3 to 10.
"Everybody who wants to participate can vote on the designs, so it's not just submissions that are crowd derived, but the winners of the vehicle body design will be crowd derived," Wiedenman said.
DARPA is investigating potential uses for the concept vehicle, Wiedenman said.
"It's something the larger military-vehicle-development community will be interested in," he added. "So capturing those ideas and giving [the community] an opportunity to not just see how the competition goes but see that end result is going to be valuable."