Why spend billions upon billions of dollars on brainstorming sessions when you can simply tap into a growing populous and use the exponential power available to design and refine technologies? Much like the projects that harness the CPU of common household computers to run computations while the user is idle (think distributed computing), this project is using our brains and creativity to solve problems that need fresh ideas. Some people are probably thinking a grand payout of 4 million sounds like a lot, but it’s pennies on the dollar if you hit a jackpot idea. Best of luck to them, but my hope is that we’ll someday see more of these types of projects being directed at things that improve and even save lives, instead of trudging through mud to take out a target.
Two years ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed off the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle — a $13 billion misfire of an attempt to build an armored boat that could make landfall and still get around on the beach. But on Monday, the Department of Defense will give you the chance to design something better.
The DoD’s forward-thinking Darpa group plans to release open-source software that will let anyone design and run virtual tests on their own swimming tank. And more than that, it will kick off the first phase of a contest where you can pit your amphibious tank design against everyone else’s. The prize: $1 million.
Darpa’s software — built in part by researchers at Vanderbilt University — is called Meta. It’s an open source version of the same kind of complex design and simulation software that typically costs big corporations tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, the Darpa program manager in charge of the challenge.
The code will be released Monday at noon EST, and the first phase of the contest — called the FANG (Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle) challenge — will kick off. Contestants will use this code to build a drive train and mobility system, Wiedenman says.
Darpa plans to continue to refine the code as the FANG challenge evolves. And, eventually, it will also release the source code to the Vehicleforge.org website that it’s using to manage the contest.
Once the drive train is built, the field gets winnowed a little bit, and the top 20 contestants will then design more of their amphibious vehicle. Contestants will move forward based on how well they meet about 150 design goals of the drive system.
When the $1 million prize winner is finally selected a few years from now, Darpa will try to build out the top design. But of course, they won’t do this in a standard way. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, they’re investing $3.5 million in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh hacker spaces where Darpa employees will literally work by night, building a new kind of reconfigurable foundry where they’ll be able to quickly spit out prototypes of the parts they’re creating.
The goal, Wiedenman says, is to build “new infrastructure for systems design development from a set of requirements — an idea on a cocktail napkin — all the way to a final fielded product.”