The experimental projects of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) often bring to mind the tech found in some sci-fi movies: robots, brain chips, self-patching defense systems. But DARPA's projects also point to some of the current real-world challenges the agency is trying to help solve.
The agency, for instance, is exploring virtual robotics to be used for disaster response. It's also building micro-scale vacuum pumps that could be incorporated into gas analyzers for detecting chemical agents. These are just some of the tech applications in the works.
On the military front, DARPA is focused on improving communications on the battlefield. For example, it's working on a new way to provide secure mobile networking by enabling soldiers' mobile devices to act as a private cloud. It also is developing radio technologies that can operate without glitches in congested environments.1. Brain implants, military robots, and more
Earlier this year, DARPA became a key participant in a new federal initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), to better understand and map the human brain. The White House is contributing $100 million in funding in the first year of the program, half of which will come from DARPA. Building on that effort, DARPA announced plans in October to spend more than $70 million over five years to develop implants that could monitor the human brain, and created a program called Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS).
SUBNETS will investigate therapies that use near real-time recording, analysis, and stimulation in next-generation devices inspired by current deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves implanting electrodes within specific areas of the brain.
"SUBNETS is a push toward innovative, informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for service members and veterans who have very few options with existing therapies," DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez said in a written statement. "These are patients for whom current medical understanding of diseases like chronic pain or fatigue, unmanageable depression or severe post-traumatic stress disorder can't provide meaningful relief."
In April 2013, DARPA released a framework that explained the agency's investment strategy and provided an overview of its projects. Program managers define and propose new projects that promise "revolutionary change," according to DARPA. "A wide array of other DARPA technology programs also reflects our investment approaches for catalyzing the future U.S. technology base for national security." Robotic systems, advanced prosthetics and the brain-machine interface, innovative manufacturing technologies, adaptable sensor systems, computing platforms, and countermeasures for biological agents all fall into this category.2.Self-patching network defense system
DARPA is getting closer to creating the mythical Skynet. In October, the agency announced the Cyber Grand Challenge for which teams will build fully automated network defense systems that compete against each other. The systems will evaluate software, test for vulnerabilities, create security patches, and apply them to protected computers on a network. Participants with expertise in reverse engineering, formal methods, and program analysis will go head-to-head in a final event in early to mid-2016, as they demonstrate their unmanned systems. The systems will have to automatically identify software flaws and scan the network to find affected hosts. The winning team will receive $2 million3.Neurotechnology and brain therapies
As part of its Subnets program, DARPA issued a solicitation on October 24, seeking proposals for new neurotechnology to analyze activity across sub-networks of the brain. The main goal of this effort is to "deliver a platform technology for precise therapy in humans living with neuropsychiatric and neurologic disease, including veterans and active duty soldiers suffering from mental health issues," says the solicitation. Subnets' different focus areas include device development, complex modeling of behaving human neural systems, clinical neurology, and research. DARPA said it's specifically interested in addressing conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, and borderline personality disorder.4.Nerve interfaces for amputees
According to DARPA, more than 2,000 members of the military have had a limb amputated since 2000. DARPA's Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program is leading research to develop high-performance, reliable peripheral interfaces that use signals from nerves or muscles to control prosthetics and to provide direct sensory feedback. Current clinical trials might soon allow wounded soldiers to take advantage of these breakthroughs, DARPA said. The agency plans to continue its efforts with peripheral interfaces through 2016, with the goal of making limb-control and sensory-feedback capabilities more widely available in the near future.5.Hydra undersea network
DARPA's Hydra program, named after a creature from Greek mythology, aims to develop a distributed undersea network of unmanned payloads and platforms that complement manned vessels. Naval forces are in need of deploying capabilities in multiple locations at once, without building new vessels. "An unmanned technology infrastructure staged below the oceans' surface could relieve some of that resource strain and expand military capabilities in this increasingly challenging space," says a description of the program on DARPA's website. The Hydra system would integrate existing and emerging technologies, DARPA said. The agency began seeking ideas and technical proposals for how to best develop and implement the system in August6.Content-based mobile edge networking
DARPA is developing an alternative approach to creating a private cloud at the tactical level. The agency recently completed initial field testing of software running Android smartphones that enabled imagery, maps, and other important data to be shared quickly among front-line units. The effort is part of the Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN) program, the purpose of which is to enable each squad member's mobile device to function as a server, allowing content to be generated and distributed as needed. "CBMEN software automatically replicates and shares updates, causing the tactical cloud to grow and diminish as users move in and out of range of each other," DARPA said. Phase two of the program kicked off in August to mature the technology.7.Clear radio communications
In the battlefield, radio communications are often subject to interference and disruptions from wireless devices. DARPA's Spectrum Challenge aims to promote the development of radio techniques that can overcome these problems. In September 2013, teams from Northeastern University and Vanderbilt University each received a $25,000 prize for demonstrating radio technologies that can communicate reliably in congested electromagnetic environments. DARPA will hold a final event in March 2014, with $50,000 to be awarded to each winning team. "I expect we'll see a massive increase in innovation when many teams come back with completely new designs. Those designs hopefully will build off the baseline algorithms and techniques we saw, and show us for the first time the reasoning and adaptive capabilities DARPA seeks to deliver," Yiftach Eisenberg, DARPA program manager heading the Spectrum Challenge, said in a written statement8.Hollow-core optical fiber
A team of DARPA-funded researchers led by Honeywell International Inc. have developed a hollow-core optical fiber that could enable high-power military sensors. According to DARPA, the fiber is the first to include three critical properties necessary for military applications: single-spatial-mode allows light to take a single path, enabling higher bandwidth over longer distances; low loss allows light to maintain intensity over longer distances; and polarization control is necessary for sensing, interferometry, and secure communications. DARPA's initial goal was to enhance fiber-optic performance for military-grade gyroscopes and to create hollow-core fiber production in the US. Although DARPA is still working on integrating this new technology into a gyroscope, the fiber can be used in other types of high-power sensors and applications that require intense optical beams, the agency said.9.Robots for disaster response
DARPA is exploring how virtual robots could improve disaster response. The Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) took place in June 2013, where teams directed a virtual robot through a series of qualifying tasks in a simulated suburban environment. That effort is part of a larger DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), which was created to spur development of real, advanced robots that can assist humans in emergency situations. During the virtual competition, top six teams received funding and an Atlas robot from DARPA to compete in the DRC trials -- a second of three DRC events -- in December. "The VRC allowed us to open the field for the DARPA Robotics Challenge beyond hardware to include experts in robotic software. Integrating both skill sets is vital to the long-term feasibility of robots for disaster response," DRC program manager Gill Pratt said in a statement.10.Microscale vacuum pumps
Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan, Honeywell International, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated how ultra-high-performance vacuum micropumps work. The DARPA-funded program, called Chip-Scale Vacuum Micro Pumps (CSVMP), focused on building a new class of powerful, tiny vacuum pumps that could be used in national security applications for electronics and sensors that require a vacuum. The new pumps are about 300 times smaller than commercially available systems and consume 10 times less power. DARPA said potential security applications could include gas analyzers for detecting chemical and biological disease-producing agents.11.Rapid threat assessment
In May 2013, DARPA launched a new five-year program to understand the molecular mechanism of threat agents, drugs, biologics, and chemicals. The objective of Rapid Threat Assessment (RTA) is to create technologies that could "identify the cellular components and mechanistic events that take place over a range of times, from the milliseconds immediately following exposure to the threat agent, to the days over which alterations in gene and protein expression might occur," DARPA said. Although the ultimate goal is to come up with medical countermeasures to chemical and biological weapons, DARPA sees RTA technologies being used to treat diseases as well. DARPA said it also wants to use the technologies developed for the RTA program with its Microphysiological Systems program, which is building "human-on-a-chip" technology. http://www.informationweek.com/government/big-data-analytics/10-cool-darpa-projects-in-development/d/d-id/1006262?image_number=9