February 11, 2011      

Fair warning: This particular post has very little to do with robotics. Instead it’s about a way that innovative products are being developed and a model the robotics industry might do well to study. Few organizations on the planet are better able to solicit innovations than DARPA. The very acronym used to identify the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency is spoken with awe by techies.

On February 3, DARPA announced that it was working with a Wareham, Mass.-based firm called Local Motors to solicit ideas for “a vehicle body design for two different missions-combat reconnaissance and combat delivery and evacuation.”  Designs were due March 3, which is not a lot of time to come up with a new idea for a new fountain pen, let alone a military vehicle. And the $10,000 prize for the winner is only an okay amount for one month’s work.

But if you’ve read anything about Local Motors in Wired or elsewhere, you know that the company is an automaker like no other, in that its business model is to solicit designs from the public, and then, if enough people place orders backed by cash, actually build the vehicles based on the submitted designs. It’s a model called crowd sourcing that’s already been used for clothing, fabric, and any number of other products. In the educational robotics industry, crowd sourcing has already been used by Lego for its Mindstorms robot platform. As a post on the entrepreneurial Web site startupnation explains it: “Looking to develop a new version of Mindstorms, the company asked its ‘most enthusiastic users and consumers’ to help develop the next product generation,” says Michael McNally, brand relations director for Lego Systems Inc.

But back to DARPA and its vehicle design contest. In addition to the $10,000 prize, the winner will likely rise to hero status within Geekdom, and maybe land a high-paying engineering job somewhere. As for DARPA itself: In addition to receiving a potentially groundbreaking design from the winner, the agency will get to pour over-perhaps-hundreds of competing ideas, any one of which might spark a workable vehicle design down the road-a pretty good payback for a 10-grand investment. Robotics OEMs take notice!