Early last year, the U.S. military’s high-tech research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), tapped an online community of designers and car enthusiasts to whip up from scratch a fully deployable military vehicle. Four months later, Local Motors in Phoenix, which hosted the DARPA challenge, delivered the FLYPmode car, “the first military crowdsourced vehicle,” according to Popular Science. “It blows my mind,” Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers told the magazine. “It was just an idea in somebody’s head. We did it through crowdsourcing, and it’s a car that could be used, and its data is freely available for people to mod it and go forward.”

That’s the idea behind a new project between GE Global Research, DARPA, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Developing new military technology is a pricey exercise. But what if you could slash costs and build your idea by tapping the wisdom of the crowd? GE and MIT said today that they would design a “crowd-driven ecosystem for evolutionary design,” or CEED, for DARPA’s vehicleforge.mil project. What’s that? In DARPA talk that is “an open source development collaboration environment and website for the creation of large, complex, cyber-electro-mechanical systems by numerous unaffiliated designers,” say, like the FLYPmode.

In simple terms, the military research agency wants to tap the power of Internet, which it incidentally help develop in the 1960s, and build a new secure crowdsourcing platform where users could freely share, re-use, and remix their ideas and vet them with the crowd before they move on. It is essentially an evolutionary digital feedback loop spun from sophisticated software, where users pick and tweak the best ideas, and advance them to the next level. Only the strongest survive and get funding. “The development of new collaborative software architecture is changing the manufacturing paradigm to a more dynamic and distributive model,” says Joseph Salvo, manager of the Business Integration Technologies Lab at GE Global Research.

The news comes on the heels a $200 million government push into big data announced last week. “Data, in my view, is a transformative new currency for science, engineering, education, commerce and government,” Farnam Jahanian, head of the National Science Foundation’s computer and information science and engineering directorate, told the New York Times.

The new crowdsourcing platform fits well with GE’s efforts to build the Industrial Internet. Such “Internet of Things” will allow people and systems gather and exchange gigabytes of data, design tools and speed up the development of highly complex industrial systems connecting jet engines, appliances, and medical devices. Last year, GE launched a broad foray into big data and opened a new global software headquarters in the Bay Area, in San Ramon, California. It will employ 400 new software engineers who will work to marry software, big data, and new product development. Could FLYPjet engine be next?

Incidentally, this is not the first time GE has helped design a military vehicle. In the 1960s it built a working walking truck. See the video here.

imageThe FLYPmode is the first crowdsourced military vehicle. Photos courtesy of Local Motors.