The Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers have awarded $1 million (£660,000) to a team of designers who they believe have built an innovative drivetrain for a Marine swimming tank. The first Darpa FANG challenge has a winner.
The three-person team that won convinced Darpa that their design could outperform Defence Department requirements for the Marines’ future Amphibious Combat Vehicle — which, as it happens, just got an infusion of research and development cash in the new Pentagon budget. But Darpa didn’t only want to demonstrate that it could design a better swimming tank to take Marines from ship to shore in a combat zone. It wanted to demonstrate that the wisdom of crowds could boost innovation for major defence hardware.
The three-person team was “geographically separated” in Ohio, California and Texas, according to a Darpa announcement on 22 April. That is, it’s a pick-up team of engineers uniting for the prize money Darpa proposed in October for the Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG) Challenge. The impromptu collaborators used the online design tools and open-source code provided by Darpa to put together a proposal that won for “system performance and manufacturability.”
“Team Ground Systems,” as it dubbed itself, now has beaten out 1,000 other competitors to win $1 million. But there’s no guarantee the team’s mobility and drivetrain design will result in a vehicle the Pentagon will actually buy. The Marines are in charge of the acquisition of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, not Darpa. Darpa wants to instead demonstrate a point about the defence-acquisitions process: namely, that it’s too compartmentalized.
Costs skyrocket and timetables slip because engineers are designing systems in a piecemeal fashion — stuff that might not work with all the other components. With the FANG Challenge, Darpa wants to see if non-traditional defence designers can create a more-integrated vehicle. (It also doesn’t really consider FANG “crowdsourcing” in a traditional sense, since FANG requires a greater degree of technical expertise than the term traditionally denotes.)
That test still remains. Team Ground Systems has its money, but now comes the fabrication process. The design will head to Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory to “validate the manufacturability feedback, foundry configuration, and instruction generation tools.” Then comes test and evaluation in Michigan.
So the Challenge isn’t over. Darpa wants to give out another $1 million for the hull design; and then another $2 million (£1.3 million) next year for the full, integrated vehicle. The wisdom of crowds can be lucrative.