DARPA's FANG: Design it, Build it, Make it Quick

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How do you produce a new infantry fighting vehicle? Take several years, spend a few billion, test a slew of prototypes, fix the problems and get into production a few years behind schedule and several billion over budget? No way, says DARPA.

Instead the Pentagon's advanced research agency wants to take a leaf out of the commercial software and microchip industry's book and get weapon-system developers to use model-based design tools and collaborate via a website to crowd-source the best design. As microchip makers do, they would test it virtually to make sure it works as intended then send the design via email to an automated "foundry-style" manufacturing plant to produce them by the hundreds.

The goal of DARPA's Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) program is to cut the time required to design and build a weapon system -- the agency calls them complex cyber-physical systems -- by a factor of five by avoiding the nasty unexpected surprises that crop up during system integration and test and cause schedule delays and budget overruns on defense programs. Modeling all of the intended and unintended interactions between systems -- hardware and software -- during design is just one part of it.

FANG Challenges: (Graphic: DARPA)

It sounds revolutionary, and it's hard to explain in a few words, but the proof of the pudding will be DARPA's Fast Adaptable Next-Generation (FANG) Challenge -- a series of prize-based competitions (above) that aim to crowd-source the design of an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) meeting the requirements set for the US Marine Corps' Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV).

Through model-based tools, component libraries, crowd-sourced design, foundry-style manufacturing and other elements of AVM, DARPA aims to show it can design and build an IFV is just one year, and produce a combat vehicle good enough to be considered a candidate for the ACV program.

The research agency has picked engineering consultancy Ricardo to run the FANG Challenge competitions, which are planned to begin in 2013. Team members include The Quell Group, Comet LLC, Georgia Institute of Technology, Vanderbilt University and Southwest Research Institute.

DARPA has already picked General Electric and MIT to build the vehicleforge.mil crowd-sourcing platform to be used for the FANG competitions. This “crowd-driven ecosystem for evolutionary design” will be an open, virtual collaborative environment where participants can share, re-use, re-mix or build on design sources, evolving systems through iterative design loops that can be tested and vetted with the crowd.

So stock up on string cheese and get your pencils ready...

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