The U.S. Defense Department think tank DARPA is offering up to US$30 million in prize money as part of a competition to introduce crowdsourcing to heavy weapons development and manufacturing. By adopting the”democratized” strategy of crowdsourcing for the development of the Fast, Adaptable Next-Generation armored vehicle (FANG), DARPA hopes to speed up the design and manufacturing of such weapons while reducing costs and introducing greater design flexibility.
Modern weapons development is trapped in a paradox. On the one hand, new weapon systems are more sophisticated, accurate and deadly than ever. On the other hand, they are growing increasingly expensive and take much longer to go from drawing board to battlefield. Where weapons could once be designed, built, tested and in combat in a matter of months or years, it now takes decades for everything from as large as bombers to as small as assault rifles. In an effort to reverse this trend, DARPA has set up a competition to build its version of the next generation of armored fighting vehicle using what it calls a “crowdsourcing infrastructure.”
Crowdsourcing has been something of a buzzword in recent years, but it actually goes back centuries. It’s basically the idea that instead of handing a design to an individual, team or company with the sole responsibility for coming up with the finished product, you open it up to a much larger group by making the project into a competition or an invitation for the public or a professional community to participate voluntarily. Long before “crowdsourcing” entered the common lexicon, it was used to encourage the invention of food tins, flights across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, and, today, even private passenger-carrying spacecraft.
DARPA’s version of this is to take the design of a state-of-the-art tank and break it down into its various system components, such as the drive train, armor, electrical system, electronics and so on. These will be handed out to some 20,000 people who will work on designing these systems. Their work will be gathered, combined and verified by virtual computer modelling. The hope is that this approach will provide much greater feedback at a much higher level of abstraction. That’s another way of saying DARPA wants to catch bugs early on.
Another hope is that by using this approach, DARPA will be able to minimize one of the greatest time and cost obstacles of weapons design – systems integration. It’s one thing to make a beautiful, elegant system. It’s another thing to make it work with all the other systems that the other engineers are developing. It doesn’t do any good to build the world’s greatest tank gun if it won’t fit in the turret properly and shorts out the electrics every time it moves. By using many designers and feeding these into the verification system with constant feedback to produce a component model library, these problems won’t hold up multi-billion dollar projects while the engineers figure out how to stick the bits together.
However, DARPA’s FANG competition doesn’t end with design. DARPA also wants to introduce a “bitstream-configurable foundry-like manufacturing capability” that moves away from the rigid assembly line process currently used in favor of one that allows for “mass customization” with specially modified vehicles being built right along with the standard models.
So far, 159 final designs have been submitted of which DARPA regards 100 as being of “high caliber.” The hope is that the most successful competitors will be able to complete the design inside of four weeks with another 14 to build the vehicle with up to $50 million available for funding.
Like most DARPA projects, this competition is still dealing with an idea that is far from the roll-out stage, but perhaps one day the bespoke tank will give the off-the-peg version a run for its money.