At first glance it seems like a fairly routine military tech project: DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is developing a miniature unmanned air vehicle that can be carried into the field in a rucksack and sent out to a remote urban location, where it will find a spot from which to perch and transmit surveillance video.
The technology for this vulture-like “Perch and Stare” device is within reach, but DARPA has taken a rather extraordinary approach to getting the concept into production.
Rather than contracting out with domestic research institutions or defense industry companies, DARPA has extended a welcome mat to everyone around the world through an elaborately crowd-sourced competition called UAVForge, which launched last May.
In a recent update for the media, Jim McComick, a DARPA program manager with UAVForge said that “The objective is to facilitate the exchange of ideas among a loosely connected international community united through common interests and inspired by innovation and creative thought.”
He added: “We seek to lower the threshold to entry for hobbyists and citizen scientists, hoping to yield greater innovation, shorter timelines, better performance and more affordable solutions.”
Entrants are asked to design a UAV (unmanned air vehicle) that is small and light enough to carry in a rucksack. It needs to be able to take off vertically, fly two miles into an urban environment, perch somewhere for at least two hours, send back video images, and then return.
Participants can build from scratch, scavenge parts from other devices or mod out hobby-shop kits, as long as they don’t cross the line into representing a production kit as their own design.
Teams get extra credit for designs that can accommodate a loss of communications, maneuver around obstacles, or find the launch site even if it has been moved to another location.
As an alternative to perching, UAVForge also invites hovering entrants, though it is assumed that battery life issues would make a hovering design much more difficult to execute.
Like all effective competitions, UAVForge offers a pretty sweet prize. The team that performs best in a fly-off gets $100,000. The winning team also gets to partner with a manufacturer to produce up to 15 working editions of its design, which will be field tested in an actual military exercise.
What makes the competition unique is its deliberately collaborative nature. UAVForge encourages individuals to contribute to the project on an ad hoc basis through the uavforge.net website, which includes discussion forums and opportunities to vote and comment on videos posted by the entrants.
A person doesn’t have to have a solution to compete…They can provide their expertise in a limited area. They can just enjoy what’s going on. They can share their opinions. And that collective sharing of opinions, we think, is going to create more value than a single person in a vacuum trying to work through this.
The first milestone is coming up next Wednesday, when teams can begin submitting videos describing what their approach is, and why they think it will succeed. So far 93 teams have expressed an interest.
This initial submission period closes on October 25. In December the teams will provide “proof of flight” by posting videos of their devices in action.
In January, McCormick’s staff will be in contact by phone with each team, directing them to put their devices through takeoff, maneuvering and landing. Live videos of these exercises will, of course, be posted on the website.
After this stage, ten teams will be selected for a live fly-off at Camp Lejuene in South Carolina, sometime early in 2012. The potential for mass production of the design will be an important factor in winnowing the field down to ten finalists.
That brings up another collaborative aspect of the competition, the involvement of a manufacturer who will help the teams get from a working prototype to a design that could be mass produced, for lack of a better word, cheaply. The manufacturer will be selected competitively by DARPA.
The manufacturing element gets to the heart of the UAVForge competition. McCormick explained that the concept of a portable surveillance drone had been kicking around DARPA for several years. Prototypes had been field tested, but the program had stalled out.
“A standard defense industry solution is out there [but] I think it suffers from the cost, and it suffers from the workload that it imposes on users,” said McCormick, explaining that the existing technology was expensive to produce and cumbersome to operate in real-life situations.
In fact building such small, maneuverable drones is more difficult than one might imagine. Dr. Robert C. Michelson, a well-known engineer in the field, has been running a competition between university-level engineering teams for years where he designs a more complex mission for the engineering teams to complete.
For its part, DARPA hopes that crowd-sourcing will give its own project a boost by enlisting a fresh pair of eyes (or thousands of pairs, as the case may be) to solve these two problems. To date uavforge.net has logged tens of thousands of visits, with 800 people registered to join discussion forums and vote on projects.
“I’d like to reinforce the fact that anybody is welcome to participate. The diversity and the different backgrounds just contribute, I think, to the quality of what comes out of this,” said McCormick.
In this regard, UAVForge is similar to another global online crowd-sourced project recently reported on by TPM’s Idea Lab, in which citizen-scientists were recruited to cull through data from the Kepler space mission. So far the 40,000 participants have spotted two potentially habitable planets beyond our solar system that the Kepler team had overlooked.
Another recent example of a crowd-sourcing success is the online protein folding game Foldit, where gamers solved a problem in AIDS research that had been stumping the pros for ten years.