Happy 60th Birthday, DARPA! Here’s Six Reasons We Celebrate You

By Alexandra Snyder, Defense Media Activity

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, sure looks good for 60! In honor of it entering a new decade yesterday, we’ve compiled our six favorite DARPA inventions:

This sketch of ARPANET fits on a napkin. How many pieces of paper would you need to sketch today’s Internet? DARPA photo

The Internet. That’s right, this blog lives on a system that just wouldn’t exist without DARPA.

In August 1962, J.C.R Licklider (his full name was Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, but he went by J. C. R. or “Lick”) published a paper titled “On-Line Man Computer Communication,” which detailed a connected global network. Less than two months later, Licklider was appointed as director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office, or IPTO at ARPA, as it was called back then. His brief was to create a network to connect Department of Defense computers at three isolated locations.

By the end of the decade, under the tutelage of internet pioneer Robert Taylor, who took over as the head of IPTO and brought in Larry Roberts from MIT, the first host-to-host connection between computers on the new Arpanet was established at 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 29. 1969, creating the world’s first fully operational packet-switching network. By December, a four-node network was up and running. The first email was sent across it in 1972, and people started referring to it as the internet in 1973.

Electronic Maps. Next time you make it to your job interview/Tinder date/brunch on time, thank DARPA.

Have you ever seen a car with a camera strapped to the roof? DARPA used this tactic almost 50 years ago.

In the summer of 1979, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, funded by DARPA, demonstrated the interactive Aspen Movie Map on videodisc. The map let users travel through the city of Aspen, Colorado, virtually. Additionally, the map included the ability to view how historic buildings looked like in the past.

To capture the images, four cameras were strapped to different points on a car. When driven, the cameras took photos of the surrounding areas every 10 feet of travel. The resulting images, along with other data, were then transformed into a 3D representation of the area.

The initial point of the project wasn’t just to help you get from your house to the taco stand downtown with 465 positive reviews. Instead, the maps were meant to familiarize service members with mission territories.

Voice Recognition Software. What’s your favorite DARPA invention? If you were to ask this of your phone’s personal voice assistant, the answer might be herself! The voice-recognition system embedded in many smartphones was born out of DARPA research.

The original research upon which the technology was built – Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes, or CALO – was funded by DARPA to develop better tools for military members in the field.

DARPA has been researching the concept of voice recognition combined with artificial intelligence since 2003. The goal of the research is to provide translation of foreign languages by service members deployed to foreign countries.

Robot Vacuums. OK, we admit this one is a stretch. The company that owns one of the most successful self-driving vacuums — you know, those round discs that terrorize your dog, but make your most hated household chores a breeze — had the research used in the invention of the picker-upper funded by DARPA. They were initially interested in a small robot that disarmed bombs, but not having to lug out a heavy machine to suck up discarded crackers for the 15th time in one day sounds pretty nice to us, too.

Driverless Vehicles. Nearly every automaker now offers a self-driving car. And it all started with a contest held by DARPA in 2004. The rules? Anyone could enter. Their vehicle must be self-driven. The fastest vehicle to make it through 300 miles of desert safely, wins. The prize? $1 million.

Spoiler alert: none of the cars in that first race made it. In fact, most of them blew up or broke down in full sight of the finish line. But a seed was planted. And a decade later, you may never have to parallel park again.

Self-steering bullets. A bullet that can change direction after it’s been fired from a weapon? No, that’s not just a Hollywood special effect.

As part of its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance, or EXACTO, program, DARPA has developed a .50-caliber ammunition that can maneuver in flight. It uses a “real-time optical guidance system” that tracks and directs the bullets to intended targets, ensuring the high accuracy rate of snipers regardless of external factors that could affect the trajectory of the bullet, such as weather or target movement. See how below: