Is there a viable, sustainable and affordable means of stopping an uncooperative fleeing vehicle (small car or truck) without causing permanent damage to the vehicle or harming any of the occupants? This is a problem that has vexed military security forces and civilian police for years.
Currently, many police forces use various “tire shredder” strips. These require the strips to be prepositioned in order to work and destroy the tires in the process. This is dangerous and has led to police officer deaths while getting the strips in place or from drivers swerving around the devices. The Department of Homeland security, in a major contract in 2009, developed the “SQUID.” This device entangles the wheels of a vehicle and stops it without destroying any part of the vehicle. But this device also requires being prepositioned and triggered as the vehicle runs over it. None of these devices provide a rapid and easily deployed capability to stop vehicles.
In March 2011—taking advantage of the prize-awarding authority granted by the America Competes Act and with help from the non-profit Wright Brothers Institute and Innocentive, an industry leader in open innovation—the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) opened this challenge to the world to solve by posting it on its open innovation portal. Within 60 days, there were 1,071 people signed up to tackle this problem. Of these interested parties, 119 people provided a wide range of detailed proposed solutions. A team of AFRL researchers evaluated these proposals and one really stood out. The team unanimously judged that this novel idea met all of the requirements.
The solution provider, Dante Barbis, was a retired 66-year-old mechanical engineer from Lima, Peru, and under the terms of the challenge he was awarded $25,000 for the rights to use his idea. The solution consists of a remote electric-powered vehicle that can accelerate up to 130 MPH within 3 seconds, position itself under a fleeing car, then automatically trigger a restrained airbag to lift the car and slide it to a stop. This design overcomes the previous restrictions of having to preposition the system. It is almost universally applicable to multiple scenarios and it is very affordable. AFRL has assigned a team and allocated funding to build and test a prototype based on Barbis’s detailed design. If the system passes all the operational testing, the prototype will be demonstrated to the USAF Security Forces and the design will be transitioned for operational use.
Open Innovation is a real force multiplier for AFRL. By opening this challenge up to the world through Innocentive, we were able to multiply the number of people thinking about this problem over 100-fold, and received a workable solution within a 60-day period. The quality of this solution is outstanding and energized our junior workforce team to quickly test and deliver a solution to our Air Force warfighters.
Alok Das is the leader of the rapid reaction force at the Air Force Research Laboratory