April 22, 2013 at 8:17 PM ET
How do you design a tank in the age of the Internet? Not by drawing up secret blueprints in underground labs, that's for sure. Instead, you make a huge toolbox available to thousands, and offer a million bucks to the one who comes up with the best design? That's what the Defense Department's research arm, DARPA, just did.
Ground Systems, a team of three people all living in different states, created the design shown here using DARPA's VehicleFORGE online tools. Thousands of parts, materials, and other parameters could be swapped out, tweaked, and modified in order to create a vehicle platform that would be powerful and efficient but also easy to build and repair.
The design isn't particularly futuristic itself, but shows how designing something as complex and powerful as tanks and weapons can be done effectively using Internet-era collaboration tools. Plus, the winning team pockets the cool million, as the design itself goes on to further testing by the military.
The "Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle" (FANG) project opened for registration early last year, and the process of putting together teams and vehicles progressed slowly. Over 1,000 participants and 200 teams contributed, and all their work was evaluated using a rigorous set of requirements — for instance, will this part require regular replacement, or be very expensive to manufacture?
As it turns out, the winning design looks a lot like the concept put forward by DARPA at the outset. But the point wasn't to design a science-fiction tank, but to make a drivetrain platform that meets basic needs in an affordable and innovative way.
The next step is for the platform to actually be built by DARPA's build team, iFab, based at Penn State University. If it succeeds in basic testing and manufacturing, it will be sent out for further evaluation at a facility in Michigan.
It's all part of the Tactical Technology Office's "Adaptable Vehicle Make" program, which is testing new methods for creating and testing systems like the FANG platform. If FANG proves successful, the process could potentially be applied to anything, from guns to aircraft.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.