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Designing a crowdsourced next-generation military vehicle by collaborating digitally in the cloud




The end of the Second World War began a half-century staring-and-spending contest with the United States' Cold War communist foes.

In that time, defense technology and manufacturing was dominated by a few well-known contractors: Lockheed Martin, Electric Boat, Bell, Raytheon.

This clutch of corporations was the military-industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower tried to warn us about.

If the Army needed a tank or the Air Force needed a plane or the Navy needed a new weapons system, a small group of companies would bid for billions upon billions in contracts, the winner earning the right to design and to build the military's new gadgets, great and small.

With nearly boundless budgets, the system worked well.

And then the Cold War thawed. The United States faced new enemies — nimble and asymmetric. Budget concerns emerged where they had once been ignored.

Things had to change.

And this being 2013, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — DARPA — turned to a very 21st century solution: crowdsourcing.

In essence, for the design of a new amphibious tank for the Marine Corps, DARPA wanted to see if engineers outside the traditional defense contract structure could design the vehicle cheaper and more efficiently.

And that's where Vanderbilt's Institute for Software Integrated Systems came in. Awarded a $9.3 million contract to develop the tools necessary to make DARPA's idea work, the ISIS team — led by Sandeep Neema — created open-source software, far cheaper and far more accessible than the old design process.

"It allows us to tap into the broadest possible pool," Neema says. "The design tools are open-source and the analysis tools are open-source. It's low-cost."

Using computer-assisted design software, designers can test out their ideas. As Neema says, a team could design five different engines and three different transmissions, then use the software to see which combination works the best to meet DARPA's standards — which are often as precise as "vehicle must climb a 3 percent grade at 25 miles per hour" — thus saving time in the field.

"Traditionally, if you take a tank or an armored vehicle, they have a very long design cycle. In that timeframe a lot of things can change. The cost is pretty high, and there's a lot of design changes," Neema says. "The motivation is to cut down on design time and design costs."

The first phase of the design contest did exactly what DARPA hoped — the $1 million prize was awarded to a geographically disparate three-person team from outside the traditional defense contract structure, who collaborated in the cloud to create a drivetrain.

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