Discovering DARPA

(Graphic photo provided by DARPA)

(Graphic photo provided by DARPA)

If you’re familiar with the advancements in science and technology in any way, chances are you’ve heard a thing or two about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  You might know them better by their buzzworthy acronym DARPA.

Ah, DARPA.

Mother of the cheetah robot.  Creator of magnificent stealth machines Problem solving with science so spectacular it brings science fiction to life in front of our very eyes.  Yes, this agency is one that makes my life – all our lives, really – more exciting.  As a science journalist, the word DARPA is to me what the word Enterprise is to a Star Trek convention: immediately interesting and intrinsically on topic.

But for as much as I love the robotastic DARPA, there are a lot of people who don’t really know what the agency is, or what they do.

That, my friends, is about to change.

Surprising satellite was surprising.  Also, frankly, pretty neat looking, too.

Surprising satellite was surprising. Also, frankly, pretty neat looking, too.

Let’s start with a little bit of history.  In 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the world with their launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial Earth satellite.  Shortly after that (in 1958), President Eisenhower founded the Advanced Research Projects Agency – what we now know as DARPA.  It’s mission?  To be at the forefront of scientific and technological development.  Basically, he wanted to make sure that there would be no more, ahem, surprises.

Basically, this institution was designed to put the government in a position where they would be seeking and exploring science and technology, rather than learning about it second hand.

And now, 55 years later, they’re still doing just that.

Dr. Arati Prabhakar is the director for DARPA, and she says DARPA is proud of their longstanding tradition of being a small team with a big mission.  “We’re a small agency,” she explains with a small but proud smile.  “Today we’re about 200 government employees.  We’ve always been a fairly small organization.  Our budget has been a consistent but fairly small portion of what the department (of defense) invests in research and development.”

What’s interesting is how many things DARPA is really involved in (beyond robot creation of course).  When it comes to military capabilities, the agency has their guiding hands on things like precision guidance and navigation, stealth technologies (like unmanned aerial vehicles), communication and networking systems, even night-vision technology.  These are just a few of the things that exist partially because of some early investments by DARPA.

Dr. Prabhakar says service members take what DARPA has worked on and used it to make some significant changes on the battlefield.

“Our warfighters have taken this suite of capabilities and turned it into a way to change the face of war.”

“That’s really our role,” she added. “That’s what our function is. That’s what we’ve done for many generations and that’s what we’re going to be doing again for the next generation.”

So what keeps the DARPA engine humming?  Dr. Prabhakar says it’s not the machines or the mechanisms that keeps the lights on.  It’s the people.  And it’s their job to make sure the right people are in the right place working on the right kind of innovation for our country.

“Our program managers create DARPA programs that they think really have the potential to change the world,” she said. “When they start building these programs, of course, they build these new technology capabilities – technical communities – that really can move our abilities forward in a really powerful way.”

Speaking of moving forward…

In case you haven’t noticed, budgets are a big concern these days.  Making more for less.  More bang for your buck.  All the capability for a discount cost.  Budget restrictions can be a unique challenge in the science and innovation departments of government.

Luckily, DARPA is up to the challenge.

“[There are] fiscal pressures that could shape a different future over the coming years and decades,” Dr. Prabhakar explained.  “I think these are factors that create an environment that calls for DARPA – and for the DARPA approaches – to think outside the box more than ever before.”

Dr. Prabhakar says says that the threat of budget constraints won’t change the fact that DARPA’s job is – and will always be – to keep the country as safe and secure as is humanly possible.

That includes investing in what she calls “game changers”.

“[Investing] in radical new systems concepts, in radical new technologies that can enable new capabilities, that’s something that DARPA has done for 55 years, and we’re going to do it today, and we’ll hope we’ll do it for the next 55 years at least.”

That sounds good to me.  With all they’ve done so far I cannot wait to see what they plan to roll out with in the next half decade or so. The agency is also all for taking new approaches.

 “We’re thinking about how we can make the systems of the future more readily adaptable so that they can be configured for whatever actual threat emerges in time.  Or can be reconfigured in real time in an engagement so that we can adapt more quickly than adversaries might in a battle environment.”

The organization also seeks ideas that can “invert the cost equation,” Prabhakar said. These types of approaches not only would reduce program costs, but also would force adversaries to spend more money to counter the technology than the technology cost to develop and implement.

Making the bad guys pay more just to stand in the arena?  Well played, DARPA.  As usual.

“We’re also thinking about the fact that DARPA’s in the ‘silver bullet’ business,” she said.  “In fact, even our most powerful capability will not single-handedly change the face of war for the next generation.”

DARPA’s current objective?  Designing a new generation of technology for national security, Prabhakar said.

Althugh frankly, the DARPAbots are some of the coolest looking conceptions outside of the SciFi world, in my opinion.  Just look at 'em! (Graphic photo provided by DARPA)

Althugh frankly, the DARPAbots are some of the coolest looking conceptions outside of the SciFi world, in my opinion. Just look at ‘em! (Graphic photo provided by DARPA)

“If we’re successful, as I think we really must be in this DARPA endeavor, what that will mean for the future is that our future leaders and commanders will have real options,” she explains.  “Powerful options for all the range of threats that we face in the years and decades ahead.   That’s really how we will enable our nation to achieve its strategic objectives in a decisive fashion.”

DARPA is more than just a lean, mean, robot-building machine.

They’re also an integral part in national security, science and industry, and technological development.  So next time you read about a new type of unmanned aerial vehicle, or hear something about a world record silicon-based millimeter wave power amplifier, or watch a video about diffusing the threat of ionizing radiation, remember that DARPA had a part in making the world a more technologically – and strategically – sound place.

As Gene Roddenberry said, “It isn’t all over.  Everything has not been invented.  The human adventure is just beginning.”

Create away, DARPA.  Humanity is counting on it.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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