Army enlists public to solve battlefield equipment gaps

Friday - 2/14/2014, 4:33am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Army's latest effort to rapidly deploy new innovations to the battlefield is a new spin on crowdsourcing. The service is testing a new concept that asks soldiers to identify combat equipment challenges, but lets the public help solve them.

It's a project of the Rapid Equipping Force (REF), whose mission for the past dozen years has been to quickly deploy small quantities of new gear to solve tough challenges, and to do it within 90-day cycles.

The organization always has been set up to respond to urgent requests from the battlefield, but REF leaders say they wanted a way to broaden their audience and make it easier for soldiers to identify common problems.

The REF also wanted to improve the way it built new items. The organization had focused on creating quick "51 percent" solutions to problems. Going forward, it would like to create prototypes that don't need much fixing down the road.

In pursuit of those goals, the Army finished a proof-of-concept exercise last month called CoCreate.

Gary Frost, the REF's deputy director for futures, said it's a spin on the notion of crowdsourcing.

"The idea of crowdsourcing is that you take from the crowd when the crowd submits a good idea," he said. "CoCreate suggests that you're not taking from the crowd. Instead, you're using the crowd, in a collaborative environment to build a solution that the crowd would also use. We wanted to see if this would be applicable to the REF."

First "Make-a-Thon"

Last fall, the Army opened a public website to let soldiers submit their battlefield equipment wishes, and more than 1,200 people became active users. Anyone could vote on whether a particular idea had merit, and thousands more peeked in out of curiosity.

By the end of October, the REF picked one of the most popular ideas — mobile command post for a small, dismounted rifle company — and decided to try and build it. The online community of academics, soldiers and garage tinkerers offered up ideas and eventually developed a blueprint.

A little more than a month later, the REF gathered together its engineers with a group of soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., to start building the first mock-up in what the Army called a "Make-a-Thon."

"We took what was pre-designed on the Internet, and then we went back to the community over the holidays and said, 'Here's pictures of what we built. How would you modify it?' We allowed the community to submit their ideas for changes, and then we came back and actually built it out," Frost said.

The finished product from the Make-a-Thon. View more photos here.

By mid-January, after a second Make-a-Thon at Fort Benning, the REF had built its final prototype.

To build the finished product, the Army took an off-the-shelf Kawasaki all-terrain vehicle, stripped it down to its chassis, and redesigned it from a soldier's perspective.

The final version included, for example, a 4G cellular communications station that can operate both on and off the vehicle, a new, less-noisy alternator, abundant power connections to run any radio in the Army's inventory, and some extra changes to make the mobile command post more usable in real-world tactical environments.

"One significant thing the soldiers came up with was the seats," he said. "If you've ever put on your full battle-rattle, your body armor and your Camelback, and then tried to sit in a Humvee or any of our MRAPs, it's difficult. One of our soldiers said we need to make a cutout in the seat for the Camelback to sit in. There's also a lower lumbar support that lets you take your body armor and rest it on there, so it takes the weight off your shoulders. That was a reasonable design, so we went out to industry and had them build it."

Collaboration from across the service

The REF got additional help from some other Army organizations. The Tank Automotive Research and Development Command, for example, sent a new muffler system they've been testing to cut engine noise by half.

The Army borrowed most of its methodology for the CoCreate experiment from the firm Local Motors, a Chandler, Ariz., based company that uses the same process to design and build passenger vehicles. That company also partnered with the REF to create the test case for the Army's version of CoCreate.

The REF is conducting several after-action reviews to decide whether the process makes sense beyond the past few months of experimentation. But Frost said several lessons around community engagement already are clear from the proof-of-concept.

"The community is a living, breathing thing," he said. "They vote by whether they log on or not, and it's not just about building it. You have to find ways to keep it alive. The other thing is that even though we had 1,200 participants, not all of them were providing value. What you're really looking for is the 10 people out of 100 that turn into one really good idea. And that's something you never would have had if you'd just done a closed design with a couple engineers on your staff. It gives you a large group of people, and it really helps you go through that haystack and find the needle."

The Army started its first CoCreate process with no specific project in mind, and in retrospect, Frost said, that might have been a mistake.

While the process did generate a lot of ideas, some of them couldn't be accomplished in short time frames, and some proposals seemed to ignore the laws of physics.

Also, when the REF settled on a tactical command post, participants who weren't interested in that particular idea faded away from the project, Frost said.

"We had a really broad aperture when we were looking at something to select. We didn't say, 'come build a vehicle.' We said, 'come with your ideas,'" he said. "If we do this again, I think our best bet would be to really target a specific area like a command post or an unmanned aerial vehicle. Then, when you do your marketing to attract people, you can probably build a quicker crowd with more valued personnel."

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