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DARPA’s newest designer is you

Austin Lagomarsino | Friday, November 9, 2012

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, is the United States’ main agency for top secret, highly classified defense projects. When the military faces a challenge current technology cannot satisfy, DARPA is tasked with creating an outside-the-box solution, and quickly. They have amassed an incredible list of projects they headed or started, including ASTOVL, precursor to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, ARPANET, precursor to the internet, the MQ-1 Predator drone and the X-37, the secret new unmanned space plane.
For most defense companies, where a security clearance is often required to know anything, the thought of opening up a project to the public would be absurd. Because of the threat public knowledge would create, most defense companies keep all important technical information secret, hidden in encrypted emails and protected by armed guards.  For DARPA, the thought of farming a project out to the public is just another clever solution.
Because DARPA only employs around 140 technical employees, the agency does not have the manpower to solve all the problems  it is presented with. Instead, it realized there are millions of bright minds in the country who are capable of thinking of the one perfect solution everyone else missed. They have held several contests before: for a driverless car, for a social networking strategy and for a robotics competition, among others. This month, DARPA unveiled a new challenge for 2013: FANG.
The Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle contest has been announced and is open to any individual or group who wishes to submit designs. The challenge is to design the next-generation amphibious infantry fighting vehicle for the United States Military. The challenge consists of three phases, which begin in early 2013: chassis and drive train, superstructure and final design. In each design, submissions will be submitted, analyzed and returned to the designers with comments, suggestions and a score. The team may then revise, edit and resubmit their design. The team with the winning design of each phase is rewarded with a million-dollar cash prize. In addition, the winning final design is forwarded on to iFAB facilities, who will construct several production models. These will then be shipped to the United States Marine Corps for testing and demonstration.
Two major implications stem from this project. The first is that with the incredible connectivity the internet affords, the industry of design may be rapidly changing. The concept of having other firms or consultants design components for a given firm’s product is fairly common, as vertical integration is not standard in most industries. However, the idea designs could come from anyone interested enough to submit a design is very creative.
One of the first predecessors of this approach is already the common approach used SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI takes in so much data from its array of radars, antennae and telescopes that they could never afford the amount of computing power it would take to process it all effectively. Thinking creatively, they presented astronomy enthusiasts the opportunity to donate the use of their idle computers: Whenever you are not active on your personal computer, SETI uses this computing capability to process data. This allowed SETI to get the desired information and allowed space enthusiasts to contribute to a cause that interested them.
Another creative project was Foldit, a game challenging players to model proteins. While scientists and doctors made only modest progress combatting the chemistry of HIV/AIDS in the last 10 years, the contest was opened up on Foldit. With the challenge of modeling the illusive enzyme the HIV virus uses to multiply, it took players only three weeks to find the answer. This discovery, through use of the brilliance of the masses, is theorized to lead to significant improvements in fighting HIV/AIDS.
The same concept applies to FANG, but with even more advantages. With the interest of many young, creative minds, DARPA gets not only a laundry list of brilliant new ideas for this project, but an impressive list of potential employees who have already demonstrated proficiency in the creative environment DARPA is built around. In the future, we may see this kind of approach used to solve even larger problems.
The second major implication is I will be forming a team to submit a FANG design. Following DARPA’s strategy of opening the contest to the public, consider this an open casting call for anyone who wishes to get involved with the project to join the team. Because the project is new, work will be defined as the project unfolds, but there is a place for everyone. If you are interested in joining the team or getting more information, please contact me at alagomar@nd.edu.
Austin Lagomarsino is a junior aerospace engineering major. He can be reached at
alagomar@nd.edu
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.