DARPA wants to blow up military design process, start over

Programs will replace lengthy development approach with computer aid

The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency is trying to reinvent design and manufacturing processes to speed up the development of next generation military equipment — while cutting costs. DARPA has launched several programs intended to dramatically compress the development timelines for complex defense systems, according to the agency.

DARPA's Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) portfolio will fundamentally change the way systems are designed, built and verified, the agency said . This new approach is expected to significantly improve programs’ abilities to handle complexity, which has been rapidly overwhelming the 1960s-era management methods now used, DARPA said.

DARPA program manager Paul Eremenko said the agency will use the integrated circuit industry as an example for its ability to cope with ever more complex products. The electronics industry moved to higher levels of abstraction in design, introduced design automation, model-based verification, and decoupled the design and build phases of the development process, he said.

The AVM portfolio consists of four efforts: one simply called "META;" Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits (iFAB); Fast Adaptive Next Generation Ground Combat Vehicle (FANG); and Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR). The combined efforts of these programs will be the development of a next generation infantry fighting vehicle. Eremenko said that the aggregate goal of AVM is to compress development times by a factor of five, democratize the development process and inspire and educate the next generation of manufacturing innovators.

DARPA launched META, the first of the AVM efforts, earlier this year. META will develop metrics, a representational metalanguage, design tools, and verification techniques to permit the synthesis of vehicle designs that are correct by the time ofconstruction. Eremenko said that META will create a toolset that will allow the development of complex military vehicles while avoiding the design-build-test-redesign loop that leads to cost overruns and schedule extensions.

The iFAB system is intended to complement META’s  design capability with a foundry style manufacturing approach. The goal is to develop a bitstream-programmable manufacturing facility that can be rapidly reconfigured to produce new designs or design variations with almost no user learning curve. Eremenko described this approach as “large-scale manufacturing in quantities of one.” An iFAB facility will be the defense industry’s analog to modern integrated circuit manufacturing plants, which are automated, adaptable and able to produce a variety of products.

The AVM program will culminate in FANG, which will leverage META and iFAB capabilities to produce an infantry fighting vehicle. However, DARPA also has another goal in mind for FANG. Eremenko said that the agency seeks to expand the number of contributors in the design process by orders of magnitude — what he refers to as “democratizing innovation.”

To meet this additional objective, DARPA will develop a collaborative infrastructure for crowdsourcing vehicle designs named vehicleforge.mil. The agency anticipates that the site will use the META metalanguage to represent designs and will include version control and “branching” features similar to those found in open source software forge sites. By crowdsourcing the design process, DARPA expects to enable thousands of engineers from around the world to contribute to vehicle designs.

Eremenko added that DARPA is also exploring new mechanisms for credentialing users and for ensuring the integrity of the final design. Vehicleforge.mil is expected to become operational in 2011-2012, after which DARPA plans launching a series of Adaptive Make Challenges — prize-based competitions of increasing complexity with winning designs manufactured in iFAB. These winning models may ultimately be evaluated against Army prototypes, he said.

Through the AVM program, DARPA also hopes to create renewed interest in manufacturing and foster a new generation of inventors. The agency will deploy a number of 3D printers to a thousand high schools across the United States over three years. Under the MENTOR effort, students will participate in a distributed design and manufacturing experiment using conventional social media tools to collaborate across schools and to develop and build vehicles such as mobile robots and go-carts.

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Reader comments

Sun, Sep 26, 2010 Edmond Hennessy United States

Was attracted to this article, by both the headline and the reference to DARPA's Blue Sky orientation. Regarding DARPA's view on the Military Design Process - give them some credit and rope - the design process mentality (with some incremental changes along the way) needs an overhaul, however there has been little innovation in the fundamental design methodology and approach. Hail DARPA's efforts! Agree with their assessment of moving this forward. On the reference to DARPA's blue sky orientation - hey, they are one of the critical technology innovation centers - just check out the full listing of active projects and initiatves - outlined on their website (those in the public domain and unclassifed) - it will not only change your view, but also knock your socks off and thrill you better than a Tom Clancy novel. Been working the Government/Military Market for three decades and have walked the halls of DARPA and played with many Defense Contractors/Integrators and Technology sources to bring DARPA's forward-thinking, concepts to real-world, deployment/production programs. Just take a look at the genesis of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and UAS's - blue sky, indeed - without DARPA - we would not have seen the development of this critical market and the rich-range of platforms and vehicles - all designed to protect the warfighter and now moving into the civilian/commercial sector - to protect us against the bad guys. My hat continues to be tipped to DARPA and to have a sigh of relief that they are there for us.

Fri, Sep 17, 2010 K. Heater

I agree that ignoring or minimizing the upfront Life Cycle Developmental Process on any major project causes huge delays and cost over-runs. Many times what an End User needs is not exactly what is asked for in the Requirements Statement. So, what the user wants is not what they ask for, and what they ask for is not what they NEED. And by the time they get the end-product its not what they can actually use to fullfil the real need. This applies to both software systems, electronic systems, and physical war-fighting equipment systems. Spend the time and effort to do the upfront analysis correctly and save millions in the long run.

Thu, Sep 16, 2010 Stanley Meyers

I do believe that DARPA misses a major factor n program cost over runs. I do nt see how the approach addresses the major cost drivers and that is the need to have clear: Statement of the Problem that is to be solved, fully captured Requirements,a Systems Architecture too mention a few. These front-end efforts have been proven to be the primary cost and schedule drivers when they are ignored. In other words, ignoring the System Develpment Life Cycle Process usually leads to expensive problems.The use of design tools is great if the system that is being designed mets the real users' needs

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