When scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) were tasked with creating a way to stop a fleeing vehicle moving at high speed, they turned to crowd-sourcing for a solution. What they got was an ingenious idea from a retired, 66-year-old South American engineer, Dante Barbis (pictured above).

Using InnoCentive Inc.’s open innovation platform (discussed in video below), AFRL and its research partner, the Wright Brothers Institute, posted a $25,000 challenge contest last March for a viable and inexpensive means for stopping a speeding vehicle without harming any of its occupants or causing significant damage to the vehicle.

More than 1,000 “solvers” from around the world expressed an interest in the “vehicle stopper” challenge and about 150 submitted proposals, said Robert Lee, project manager for open innovation and award challenges at the Wright Brothers Institute.

“InnoCentive weeded about half of them out because you get some really strange ones,” Lee said. “But we don’t really care how many bad ideas we get. We care about the one that looks really good.”

A team of AFRL scientists reviewed the remaining proposals and very quickly a winner rose to the top, Lee said.

Submitted by Barbis, a mechanical engineer from Lima, Peru, the solution consisted of a remote controlled, electric-powered vehicle able to accelerate up to 130 mph in three seconds and position itself under a fleeing car, automatically triggering an airbag to lift the car and bring it to a halt. Barbis provided about 12 pages of documentation and specifications, including drawings of the device.

“Not only did we think it would work, but it was very inexpensive and [the operator would need] hardly any training,” Lee said.

Dwayne Spradlin, InnoCentive, highlights Open Innovation concept

Over the next six to 12 months, an AFRL team will build a prototype vehicle stopper and perform operational tests to “see whether it can work in a nice, safe way,” Lee said. If it passes all operational tests, it will be demonstrated to the Air Force Security Forces and transitioned for operational use at checkpoints. It also has the potential use for law enforcement agencies, he said.

We don’t want 10 million solutions. We want the most exposure but we also want people to understand what the problem is and very specifically what we’re solving it for.”

For officials at AFRL, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and the nearby Wright Brothers Institute, the vehicle stopper device demonstrates the impressive power of challenge-driven innovation and crowd sourcing.

“When we work on a problem, we typically have four or five researchers working on a narrowly defined problem,” Lee said. “When we put [the vehicle stopper challenge] out to the world, we immediately had 1,000 people thinking about this problem within 60 days. That’s what I would call a very good force multiplier.”

AFRL and the institute opened the AFRL TecEdge Open Innovation Pavilion on InnoCentive’s Web site last March to “tap the knowledge of the world,” Lee said.

“We felt we needed this big megaphone to get the [challenges] out.” InnoCentive has a proprietary network of 250,000 solvers worldwide, he added.

For government agencies like AFRL, using crowd-sourcing and challenge-driven innovation to solve problems also helps reduce research and development costs.

“This is a very new way for government to get access to innovators all over the world in a pay for performance model,” said Dwayne Spradlin, president and chief executive officer of InnoCentive (who discusses the technique in the video above.)

Open innovation also furnishes a new model for government procurement, Spradlin says.

“Government procurement has been institutionalized and is slow to change,” Spradlin said. “We’re now seeing government bring a certain agility into this area.”

Organizations that set up pavilions-virtual spaces for problem solvers–on InnoCentive’s Web site make their challenges very specific to limit proposals to serious solvers.

“We don’t want 10 million solutions,” Spradlin said. “We want the most exposure but we also want people to understand what the problem is and very specifically what we’re solving it for.

When we do that, we get a lower number of solutions but a higher signal to noise ratio-appropriate solutions that are more rigorous in their treatment.”

Indeed, the nature of AFRL’s challenge, and the caliber of responses it generated, are representative of the growing number of success stories the federal government is discovering through challenge programs.

While innovation contests aren’t new–the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been using them for years–what is new are turnkey systems that government agencies can use, including a year-old program called Challenge.gov.

“The Air Force Vehicle Stopper Program challenge illustrates the power of seeking solutions via a contest format,” said David L. McClure, GSA, associate administrator, Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

OCSIT has spearheaded the development of Challenge.gov, which lets agencies administer their own innovation contests online, including the ability to offer cash prizes for the best ideas.

McClure concurred, one of the byproducts of challenge programs is a more cost effective way to acquire solutions.

“The intent of the challenge was to provide creative solutions to address urgent needs in the global war on terror while enabling invaluable early career experience to scientists and engineers,” he said.

But he also noted, “Challenges and prizes have had an impact on changing the way government acquires solutions to problems, from creative to highly technical.”