The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has received a $1.5 million
contract to produce an online environment that would let multiple design teams
work together to develop new military vehicles.
The VehicleForge project’s goal is to create a secure central Website and
other Web-based tools and methods that would facilitate such collaborative
development. The work is sponsored by the Tactical Technology Office of the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“The aim here is to fundamentally change the way in which complex systems
are taken from concept to reality,” said Jack Zentner, a senior research
engineer who is leading the project for GTRI, along with research scientist
Nick Bollweg. “By enabling many designers in varied locations to work together
in a distributed manner, we’re confident that vehicles—and eventually other
systems—can be developed with greater speed and better results.”
The core Website, to be called vehicleforge.mil, would enable individuals
and teams to share data, models, tools, and ideas to speed and improve the
design process. As part of supporting designer collaboration, the VehicleForge
approach would allow participants to reuse the models, tools, and other
elements present on the site.
Two companies, Red Hat Inc. and RadiantBlue Technologies Inc., are
collaborating with GTRI on VehicleForge. They will help GTRI address several
issues, including the development of intellectual property information and
governance models for designers using the vehicleforge.mil site.
The VehicleForge effort will draw on technology already being used at GTRI
to develop open source software online. GTRI is involved in open source
software development through the five-year Homeland Open Security Technology
(HOST) program, which is sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security.
VehicleForge would expand cooperation among diverse groups that
traditionally have not been able to collaborate easily. Vehicle designers from
large corporations with significant tool investments will be able to share
ideas with small innovative teams that possess diverse skill sets, experience
levels, and tools. Student teams could also participate at all levels, which
would inject youthful creativity into the process and support the education of
To enable collaboration on a large scale, VehicleForge is utilizing several
key components to help create a secure collaborative environment.
- A distributed version control
system (DVCS) will provide a master repository that records changes to the
design of vehicle systems and their components, simplifying the
interoperation of design models built with different languages and
supporting the merging of work products from one design project to
- Semantic design will use a
single, flexible data-structure language to facilitate data sharing and
component reuse among both humans and machines. Each component of a
vehicle will be represented as a DVCS-managed Web Ontological Language
(OWL) file containing component attributes in a machine-readable form.
- A wiki-based front end will
use open-source wiki software to produce a website interface that enables
collaboration among multiple users. Features include word processor-like
editors, access control, forum-style discussions, and change and version
control on pages and file attachments.
- Mashup apps—VehicleForge
users could continue to utilize the Internet’s many useful offerings, such
as Flickr, YouTube, blogs, and online spreadsheets. The VehicleForge
developers envision a family of mashup applications that will combine data
from different sources, helping designers exploit the Internet’s
capabilities while maintaining compatibility with VehicleForge.
“The framework that is being built into VehicleForge will provide designers
with tremendous flexibility, yet security and version control can still be
tightly managed,” Zentner said. “The process will be very open—many different
designers will qualify to access the Website—but the distributed
version-control system will require that any change to an existing element be
thoroughly examined and tested before it’s incorporated into the overall
VehicleForge is part of the Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) program, a $10
million, four-year DARPA program announced in the first half of 2011. AVM’s
goal is to foster novel approaches to the design, verification, and
manufacturing of complex defense systems and vehicles.
The GTRI VehicleForge team will include seven scientists and engineers,
Zentner said. The current contract, which covers one year of development, could
be extended for additional years.
Zentner expects that VehicleForge will contribute significantly to the
expanding open-hardware movement. A team from GTRI, RadiantBlue and Red Hat has
met to discuss this goal with representatives from CERN, the European
Organization for Nuclear Research, which has an open-hardware initiative
underway. The team is also meeting with Facebook, which is pursuing a project
called Open Compute.
The talks have focused on how VehicleForge could serve as a major
open-hardware design repository, much as websites such as github.com and
sourceforge.net do for open source software development.
Open source software development techniques will also be critical to the
VehicleForge environment. Open source programs make their computer code
available to communities of qualified programmers, speeding development,
increasing security and flexibility, and potentially lowering costs.
“Some open source Websites already allow developers to work together on
software, and the technologies used by those sites can be very valuable to
VehicleForge,” said Joshua Davis, a research scientist who is principal
investigator for the HOST program at GTRI. “But the challenges of online
collaboration for physical systems like vehicles are greater than for software
collaboration, because designers of physical systems typically use a wide
variety of modeling languages and data formats.”
Two other research groups—one at General Electric and one at Vanderbilt University—have
also received DARPA contracts to produce alternative versions of the
VehicleForge concept. The three VehicleForge teams expect to meet periodically
to discuss their work.
“By the end of the first year, we expect to have a fully functional version
of vehicleforge.mil up and running and open to a limited number of users,”
Zentner said. “And we hope it won’t be long after that when many different
designers and teams will be working together on the site.”