Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) Receives $1.5 Million to Create Online Collaborative Vehicle Design Capability

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.

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Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) researchers Nick Bollweg, left, and Jack Zentner, are principal investigators for the  VehicleForge collaborative online environment project. (Georgia Tech Photo by Gary Meek)

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 future professionals.

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 another.
  • 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 design.”

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.”  

This research is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) through contact HR0011-C-0099. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of DARPA.

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Media Relations Contacts: Kirk Englehardt (404-407-7280)(kirk.englehardt@gtri.gatech.edu) or John Toon (404-894-6986)(jtoon@gatech.edu).

Writer: Rick Robinson