Build a Swimming Tank for Darpa and Make a Million Dollars

The Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers are gambling that you can build a swimming tank for the Marines in a fraction of the time it takes the military’s lumbering acquisitions process. All you need are the relevant data and a set of web-based collaborative tools. And its gamble will pay you a million dollars if you’re part of the winning design team.

Welcome to the FANG Challenge, the latest of Darpa’s various design challenges that leverage the distributed intelligence of the crowd. (They don’t want to call it “crowdsourcing,” but more on that in a second.) FANG stands for Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle. In this case, Darpa wants to build an amphibious infantry vehicle to the specifications of the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Combat Vehicle, designed to carry Marines from ship to shore under fire. Only Darpa thinks you can design something that’s more innovative than a traditional military vehicle, in less time, and without the support of mega-defense corporations. To do so, you’ll have to break from the process through which those vehicles get engineered.

Typically, explains Army Lt. Col. Nathan Weidenman, a Darpa program manager and armor officer, the component systems of military vehicles are engineered individually: The propulsion people work on the propulsion system, the data people work on data management, and so forth. But when you put them all together, you don’t get what you expected, “because all those components and sub-systems interact in ways we couldn’t anticipate,” Weidenman told reporters on Tuesday. “Nothing is just a data-management system or a power or thermal system. All the components of a complex system like this have mechanical, power, data, thermal, and electromagnetic behaviors that affect other sub-components around them.” The result is a stop-start process that takes forever and costs a fortune.

The gamble behind the FANG Challenge is that once a design team has the data spelling out the requirements of each of the systems for a military vehicle, that team ought to be able to design the individual parts of component systems while taking note of how the other parts have to knit together. Darpa doesn’t expect you to do the whole thing at once: First it wants you to build the mobility system; and later, it’ll ask you to design the chassis.

But to be able to see how the component systems of the vehicle will need to interact, Darpa has created an online library of data — called the Component, Context, and Manufacturing Model Library, or C2M2L, pronounced “Camel” — and a virtual foundry called VehicleFORGE.

Inside VehicleFORGE, people who form into design teams can inspect the data requirements for each component of the swimming tank (or, really, whatever you design); use imaging software to design each of the systems; and see immediately how any one part of the vehicle impacts every other one, so you can adjust your specs accordingly. As shown in the image above, the interface looks a bit like online gaming.

“You open the aperture for innovation,” Weidenman contends, beyond the same handful of defense giants that the Pentagon relies on for its expensive truck, plane and ship programs.

To be clear, the FANG Challenge doesn’t hold the Marines’ amphibious vehicle program hostage to the design whims of random people. It’s an experiment in outperforming the military acquisition system. “We have a close working relationship with the Marines, but they are not counting on FANG for the success of their program,” Weidenman said. “We will run in parallel, and if we are successful, the [amphibious vehicle] program will be the first beneficiary.

Again, Darpa isn’t actually expecting to build every part of this infantry vehicle all at once. The FANG Challenge is broken up into three phases. The first phase, opened to would-be competitors for registration on Monday, seeks to build the drivetrain and mobility systems. Darpa will open C2M2L and VehicleFORGE to participants in January, and teams will have until April to work. The winning design, judged according to the Marine Corps’ criteria for the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, will get a million dollars. You can start to assemble your crew using the hashtag #DARPAFANG.

The next phase, slated for late 2013, will be to design the hull, informed by the work in phase 1. That’s another $1 million. And in 2014, the winning design for the full vehicle will get $2 million. Darpa gets a design it expects it couldn’t anticipate — Weidenman thinks “populating the design tradespace” will yield wacky new structures — and, the gamble goes, the Marines might get a new swimming vehicle long before the traditional Pentagon acquisitions process. That process, it’s worth noting, led its previous future swimming tank, the Expeditionary Combat Vehicle, to flameout after $13 billion and nearly 20 years of development.

Darpa’s crowdsourced vehicle designs before. The 2010 Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-Support Vehicle (XC2V) Design Challenge created a combat vehicle that could be used for medevac. Weidenman thinks the FANG Challenge isn’t exactly crowdsourcing, though.

“We do not consider Adaptive Vehicle Make and the FANG Challenges to be crowdsourcing in the traditional use of the term,” he says. “Crowdsourcing requires that you attack the right problems. And it’s really valuable at attacking the kinds of problems that require someone to have an innate inborn skill,” such as Darpa’s protein-folding challenges. This is focused on “someone who really has the technical skills and training to be an engineer for complex cyber-physical systems, but who doesn’t have a way of access or providing any input… We’re looking at a more focused selection of people that we want to reach out to, non-traditional design entities.”

Whatever you call it, it could yield a new amphibious vehicle — and make you money.