Decoding Design

DARPA to crowdsource amphibious vehicle design

Posting in Architecture

DARPA is known for its role in developing innovations such as the Internet; now, the U.S. Department of Defense agency is creating an open design competition to improve tanks used by Marines.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense known for its forward-thinking research and development--namely the roles it has played in creating the Internet and other groundbreaking innovations. And now DARPA is about to engage in a phenomenon that's been trendy in design circles for the last several years: "crowdsourcing." In the case of DARPA, the agency is tapping the public for their ideas on improving the design of military tanks used by Marines on beaches.

So reported James R. Hagerty in The Wall Street Journal. (One of the best parts of his thorough report, I thought, was his somehow both very general and yet very specific definition of crowdsourcing as "a freewheeling collaborative method sometimes used to develop software.") DARPA's vehicle crowdsourcing program is scheduled to kick off within the first half of 2013 with a series of "design challenges" to come up with a new amphibious vehicle for Marines. The tank concept is intended to be used on beaches. The challenges would be part of a competition that the Journal reported could award designers up to $2 million in prizes.

As Hagerty explained, the idea to look for design help outside of DARPA's immediate network reflects a need to find an inexpensive alternative to recently proposed Marine-tank plans. He wrote,

"DARPA got an opening to test its crowdsourcing theories after the Defense Department in early 2011 canceled another project to create a replacement for 1970s-era Marine amphibious vehicles. The military concluded the project, led by defense contractor General Dynamics Corp., would be too expensive—after sinking in more than $3 billion toward development. Pursuing the program 'would essentially swallow the entire Marine vehicle budget,' then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time."

Of course, one of the biggest and most obvious risks of crowdsourcing design for the U.S. military is that top-secret information related to American security could get into the wrong hands. A DARPA official, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, is quoted by Hagerty as saying that the technology details won't be "fully open." Yet, thankfully, the new initiative to develop amphibious vehicles via a design competition will be truly open--meaning it actually won't just be a gimmicky free-for-all among amateur inventors. Unknown tank designers will also compete alongside companies (perhaps even including General Dynamics) and academic labs with deep military experience, too. As Hagerty suggested in the Journal, the initiative will likely be a fascinating test not only of the many crowdsourced concepts to surface, but also of the concept of crowdsourcing itself, too.

Image: Photo by U.S. Department of Defense/Casey H. Kyh

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure