Oct. 3, 2012 at 6:06 PM ET
A military initiative meant to open the design of military vehicles to everyone started registration Tuesday, marking the first step in the way equipment like tanks and fighter jets are designed.
For decades, the Department of Defense and its network of contractors have designed and manufactured vehicles and other tools in more or less the same way: Essentially, a single contractor develops a prototype, which is then manufactured, tested, reviewed and revised. That might have worked in the 1950s and 1960s, but the process has become so long and complex that the Pentagon has spent billions upon billions on dead-end projects.
At least part of the process needed to be rethought, and DARPA's "Adaptive Vehicle Make" project is the result. It treats development less as a special design case and more like a big bucket full of LEGO blocks.
The DoD is taking all the parts you might need to build the "Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle" (FANG) and making them all available for mixing and matching using a suite of powerful online tools the department calls VehicleFORGE. Anyone can piece together an engine and drivetrain and submit it for evaluation.
Of course, the point isn't to have amateurs putting together pieces of junk, although plenty of failed designs are expected. The library of parts is even called C2M2L, or "camel," a nod to the original collaborative design failure ("a horse designed by committee"). But the DoD also expects talented non-military individuals and teams to do a lot of really valuable design work — motivated, of course, by a million-dollar prize.
The creation process is extremely flexible: Teams can compare and fit together existing parts, view them in a collaborative CAD environment, modify the size and materials, and even submit their own designs. The winner will be judged on a set of design requirements such as cost, speed, weight, resilience and so on.
Tuesday brought a DARPA briefing and the opening of the contest website for registration; the tools themselves are still under construction, though they were complete enough for demonstration (you can download the presentation here; the demo starts at 9:45). The design process will start in mid-January, when the tools and libraries are set to be made available.
The first phase of the contest, teams will have three months to design the FANG's drivetrain — after that is finalized, the winning design will be passed on to another contest to design the chassis, and then the winner of that will go on to a third and final contest to design the production vehicle itself.
You can learn more about the project, or register to participate, at DARPA's VehicleFORGE website.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.