March 04, 2013
Credit: MORRIS TECHNOLOGIES
From locating balloons to re-assembling documents, from crowd-designed vehicles to disaster-response robots, researchers are using challenges to draw ideas from those who would never normally do business with the Pentagon.
For the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), it is as much about how as what and why. The agency has used challenges to research topics ranging from social networking for intelligence-gathering to crowd-sourcing for design collaboration. And even if a challenge fails, there can be value.
The 2009 Network Challenge looked at how social media could help solve broad problems—in this case, finding 10 balloons at undisclosed locations across the U.S. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team found them all in 9 hr. thanks to a network of nearly 4,400 volunteers, each promised a share of the $40,000 prize if they helped to locate a balloon.
A similar challenge in 2012, the $40,000 CLIQRQuest, looked at how well social media would work if there was no advance publicity to help teams form. The contest closed after two weeks with no one team having found all seven codes on posters around the U.S. The best team found three.
Darpa has tried different crowd-sourcing challenges, to tap into an ideas pool wider than any single contractor can muster. These range from successful challenges to reconstruct shredded documents and design a military vehicle, to an unsuccessful flyoff for a small unmanned aircraft.
The agency has used competitions to enlist public ingenuity in support of its programs. These include Dangerous Waters, an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) game in which players developed tactics for shadowing an evasive submarine using a robotic ship, with the best to be used in its ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel program.
But Darpa still stages “old-fashioned” technology-demonstration challenges. These range from a series of contests, with prizes totaling $5.5 million, for autonomous ground vehicles to its latest $2 million challenge to build robots that can work alongside humans in disaster zones.