Crowdsourcing the Future of Aerospace Written 10 January 2018
Panelists: Moderator Jenn Gustetic, program executive of small business innovation research, NASA; Jason Crusan, director, Advanced Exploration Systems Division, NASA; Dustin Fraze, program manager, Information Innovation Office, DARPA; Monsi Roman, program manager, Centennial Challenges, NASA; Chris Frangione, open innovation consultant; Zoe Szajnfarber, associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering and space policy, George Washington University
By Tom Risen, Aerospace America staff reporter (2017-2018)
Organizations like NASA, DARPA and even intelligence agencies are increasingly challenging the professional community or general public to solve technical problems for them — a process known as crowdsourcing. Experts on the Jan. 9 panel “Prizes & Challenges — How Crowdsourcing Can Help Solve Technology Gaps” at the 2018 AIAA SciTech Forum in Kissimmee, Florida, described what people need to know when creating or applying for a contest to achieve an out-of-reach scientific goal in aerospace engineering.
The growth of crowdsourcing has led to the creation of several toolkits, such as citizenscience.gov, that help interested parties design a challenge. DARPA has awarded prizes for applicants who helped advance autonomous car research, while NASA's 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge seeks additive construction technology to help build sustainable housing on missions to Mars.
“Challenges and prizes work best when you define a problem,” said Chris Frangione, a consultant who was formerly the vice president of prize development and execution at the XPRIZE Foundation. “Once you ask for a specific solution, then you hinder innovation.”
A key factor in planning a challenge is what kind of incentives to offer people to solve a seemingly impossible problem, but some people pursue such challenges for the glory of the achievement.
“The No. 1 feedback we hear from our participants is ‘I wanted to solve this because it was hard,’” said Monsi Roman, the program manager of Centennial Challenges at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
The compensation should match the cost of solving the problem to make sure qualified people devote their spare time to completing the challenge, Frangione said.
“Prize design is the most critical element,” he said. “The best thing about prizes is that you get what you incentivize. The worst thing about prizes is that you get what you incentivize.”
To complement or make up for the absence of a large cash reward, an organizer can offer full-time jobs at their company if the resulting career would be prestigious enough. Organizers of challenges will sometimes reserve all rights to the intellectual property of the technology created to for the competition.
Applicants should read the terms and conditions of a challenge, including the intellectual property details, to make sure the challenge would be worth their time and effort, said Jenn Gustetic, program executive of small business innovation research at NASA.