I’m gonna start this post with a little bit of background. I’m a developer on various open source hardware projects, others and my own. Hardware has more barriers to entry than software, particularly when it comes to distributed collaboration. It’s not a matter of exchanging text files; you have to work with images, CAD files, videos, documents, etc and then there’s the problem of incompatible versions of multimedia. Even when everybody uses the same file formats, it can be difficult to convey all of the relevant information. And if you change anything it can be a huge issue. Then there’s the ever-present problem of turning the design into an actual physical thing.
What the open source hardware community needs is a common set of tools, but not just a few tools, an entire toolchain. I tried to work out a common file format and quickly realized that it’s not possible. You need a common database format, and not just a database, you need tools that can edit the project files without losing all the relationships in the database. Basically, you need an end-to-end development environment that links any random developer with all other developers, using identical file formats, and identical tools, that eventually produces a digital description of the machine that can be qualified and fabricated virtually.
It’s a huge undertaking. Without an end-to-end environment each piece is only marginally useful. The chicken and egg problem seemed almost insurmountable.
However, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) had the same thought, and they threw a lot of money at it. In an attempt to cut the development time of military vehicles by a factor of five, DARPA has created a complete, web-based, virtual development environment…oh and they’re releasing it under an open source license.
It’s called VehicleFORGE and for its first trick it will host a year-long, three-stage competition to design the Marine Corps’ next amphibious infantry fighting vehicle. It’s called the FANG Design Challenge and it’s open to any “U.S. person.” Yes, ANYONE (who doesn’t violate ITAR restrictions). All you have to do is register and, when the competition goes live on 14 January 2013, you’ll be able to design a vehicle using cutting-edge open source tools.
I just registered and I can assure you that, after poking around the members area for a while, VehicleFORGE looks polished. It’s only got a few controls, but they’re exactly what you need, they work intuitively, and it’s an overall slick experience. The only stuff that’s live at the moment seems to be the social network stuff (competitors and teams).
Speaking of which, if you’d like to join Team Openalia, just register and do a quick search or follow the link.
I’m fairly certain that the competition will be won by teams uploading a lot of high-performance parts that aren’t included in DARPA’s list of supplied components. However, participating will be a lot of fun. Lets see how well we can do against the other non-professional teams!